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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel

The Big Guy Has Left the Building

Not too many people ever met Guy in person, and that's too bad. Even my upstairs neighbor, who's been living there for the past 10 years, only met him for the first time a few weeks ago. And like everyone else who met that damn cat for the first time, as soon as Guy padded into the room, all my neighbor could say was "wow."

There was just something about him. Part of it was his size. He was a 20-pounder but not fat. He was simply a huge beast. Part of it might've been all those extra toes. Part of it was his clumsy grace and those wide eyes. He was the Godzilla of cats, the Elvis of cats, a dog of a cat who would come when you called him, a perpetual, rumbling purr rattling his heavy frame. Whoever you happened to be, Guy was always happy to see you.

Yet despite the fact that few people ever did see him, everyone always asked about him. Complete strangers would send me little notes asking how he was doing. He got Christmas cards addressed to him. Much of it, I think, can be attributed to that story 60 Minutes did on him a few years back. (Morley Safer, I must admit, was quite smitten). Even if the story wasn't supposed to be about Guy, that's what it became in the end.

For all the attention, though, Guy remained unchanged. A lumbering, happy-go-lucky, over-toed, massive, retarded beast.

In the opening days of 2003, everything was going to pot. There was some mayhem at the office, and I honestly wasn't sure how much longer I'd have a job. The new manuscript I'd just turned into my publisher wasn't meeting with the sort of enthusiastic response I was kind of hoping for. And at home, I'd noticed that Guy was slowing down some. At first I put it down to old age--he was 16 years old and had been through hell not too long ago. Another thing I kept in mind was that he had a tendency to enter a kind of hibernatory state in the wintertime. Even if he couldn't escape his age, I figured he'd come out of his hibernation in a few weeks.

Soon, however, it became apparent that it wasn't just his age, and wasn't just the season. He was taking a bad turn. He'd stopped eating and drinking. I could feel his spine beneath his fur for the first time ever. He was becoming less responsive, no longer trotting across the room at the mention of his name. He no longer jumped the way he used to. Even his purr was diminished.

I thought maybe with everything else going on, I was just being a worry-wart. I tend to do that. But one afternoon, Morgan-who once worked at the ASPCA-took a look at him, and was immediately concerned. Together with everything I noticed, he was dehydrated, she told me, and was clearly uncomfortable.

The next morning, we bundled him up and jogged him to the vet. They'd saved his life once before (much to everyone's surprise) when it was discovered that he had a huge gastric ulcer. Back then, once they saw what the problem was, the vets didn't give him much of a chance, but he fooled them. He fooled them all.

(At the time, Morgan's theory was that he was just too dumb to die, and I think there's something to that.)

This time, the initial prognosis wasn't so good either. After examining him, the vet told us that he had lost 12-15 percent of his water, which is about the absolute maximum you can lose without dying. It could've been caused by one of four things, she said--and three of them were treatable. If it was the result of the fourth one, kidney disease, however, it meant he was right at the end, and there was nothing that could be done.

We left him at the hospital for a proposed three days of care and tests. By the end of the day, the vet promised, she'd get back to me with the results of her preliminary tests.

Morgan and I returned to my place and opened a couple of beers. I didn't say much, and wasn't sure what I was thinking. I tend to assume the worst. It makes things easier, somehow. We'd had friends whose cats had kidney problems. It wasn't pretty.

At nine that night, the vet finally called back. It was indeed his kidneys, she told me. But complicating matters was a serious kidney infection on top of things which was obscuring what they could determine about his actual kidney function. Plus he was anemic. All in all, things weren't good, and she started talking euthanasia.

I didn't much want to hear that right then (though I was prepared for it), and suggested that maybe they see how he responded to the various treatments they had in mind. He was always full of surprises, that cat.

Sure enough, when I talked to the vet the next morning, she was surprised. Amazed, really. Overnight, she told me, he had gained three pounds, was eating regularly, and had become, in her words, "feisty" (which in Guy's case probably meant that he was glad-handing around the ICU).

"He's pretty spectacular," she said. Even though she still brought up the euthanasia business, she seemed almost hopeful.

I'm not the type who would keep him alive at any cost if it meant he would be miserable and uncomfortable. So when we went to visit him the next day, I wasn't sure what to think. He was groggy, he was bloated, he didn't move very much. Granted, he had and i.v. stuck into one paw and his body had just absorbed over three pounds of water. Despite the encouraging words from the vet, I left feeling rotten.

My head felt tight and I wasn't able to sleep. Everything always happens at once. I tried to remind myself that I had friends who were in much worse circumstances than I was at the time, but it didn't help much. When we brought him into the hospital---and I'm glad we did; he wouldn't have made it through another night if we hadn't--neither Morgan nor I expected this.

The next day, the vet never mentioned euthanasia. She did, however, remind me that he was going to require some heavy duty home care. It looked like he was beating the odds again, that stupid bastard.

On Monday afternoon, I received a call informing me that we could come and pick him up the next morning at 7:40. At the same time, Morgan and I would be trained in all the home care techniques we'd need to inflict upon him from that point onward--drugs, special diet, and daily infusions of liquid.

When the vet came into the room that morning, though, her tone had changed. There were still injections and medicines we had to give him, but the most important thing, she said, was to keep him as comfortable as possible, and to let him eat whatever the hell he wanted.

That didn't sound good at all, and when we got him home, the reasons were obvious. He didn't have the strength to hold himself upright, and his back legs seemed almost paralyzed. His front paws scrabbled as he tried to drag himself across the floor without much success. He tried to drink some water, but every time he did, he either threw it right back up, or suffered a series of gagging spasms. He wouldn't eat and was unable to use the litterbox.

We tried to put the best face on things--he's all drugged up, he's put on all that extra weight and hasn't gotten used to it yet, he's a little weak--trying to convince ourselves that his condition was only temporary, that he'd get better. Several hours later, though, it was pretty clear that it wouldn't be getting any better.

To a lot of people, sure, he was just a "pet." That's understandable, and I don't fault anyone for thinking that way, But he was a "pet" who was with me for 16 years, who slept next to me every night, who followed my every step around the apartment, sat in the chair next to me as I ate my breakfast, watched the television with me. I'd turn it on and lay down on the floor, and within a matter of seconds, I'd hear the click of his approaching footsteps. He was always there, always within reach, always purring. He's been with me longer than I've been writing these stupid stories. He's seen it all.

That night I lay awake, listening to his breathing on the bed next to me. Whenever a hand touched him, he would begin purring.

Come two o'clock, the purring stopped, leaving only a ragged, shallow breath, almost a wheeze. I knew that if there was no improvement by the next morning, I'd have to take him back to the vet. This was no way for him to live. Guy wasn't Guy anymore. He wasn't happy, and he was suffering.

For a moment I considered doing something myself--it would be better for him to be at home. But I didn't know what I had available that would be quick and painless. I also didn't know if I'd have the nerve. I continued to listen to him breathe.

At three o-clock, he made up his own mind that he'd had enough. He was home, he was in his spot on the bed, and I was there. If it had to happen, there was no better way.

There was a small, sharp cry. He turned and buried his head in the crook of my arm and coughed once, softly. Then, with his final breaths, he purred.