Sambuca

This one’s going to be a stone cold bummer folks, sorry.

Last night I came home to find my cat, Sambuca, lying on my closet floor limp, foaming at the mouth, and unresponsive. He had been fine just that morning, doing his usual thing, taking over the warm spot in bed that I vacated, batting me in the face with his paws to indicate he was hungry and time for sleep was over. He sat watching me get ready from his usual perch, green-eyed and haughty, always looking slightly like “you’re really going to wear that?” Sammy’s face never said anything so much as “Hrumph.”

But now, a mere eleven hours later, I was taking him to the emergency vet. I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice it to say by the end of the night I was saying goodbye, completely unexpectedly. There was no warning, and there was nothing to be done. He had been totally healthy, energetic, and fine. Until he wasn’t. Which, I suppose, if given the option, if probably how most of us would prefer to go. It was quite considerate of him, actually. As always, his manners were impeccable.

Sambuca and I had found each other in my second year of law school, when a friend needed to trim her cat collection down to two. At first I thought he was too stoic. He was big, really big, like 17 pounds, which was something I always wanted in a cat. But he was quiet, and he just sat there. Staring at you. It was unnerving. 17 pounds of grey, bull-dogish sleekness just watching you. Creepy.

But after that first night, he became a purr monster, looking for affection at every turn. He was dog-like in his desire to spend time with me, none of the usual aloofness one finds in most cats. He just wanted to be next to me, not whining for petting, but just around. Steady. And he liked people, all people. Any type of attention and touch was good for him. He would literally scratch his face on Kelly’s wedding ring, purring all they way. Never hissing, never biting, unless he was nibbling on my fingers in the morning when the batting didn’t work as a food delivery prompt. He was the Orson Welles of cats, big, but owned it, and wore it like a dapper suit. He had many nicknames, mostly related to the law because that’s all I thought about when I got him: Judge Learned Paw, Catdozo, Buca, Buddy, Panda, Sammy. Pet names.

So fine, I loved my cat, and I thought he was a character. But it’s actually what he taught me that I’m most grateful for. Little things, like there’s always time for a nap. And showing up is sometimes enough. That big can be beautiful. But there were bigger lessons too. A pet is many things, a friend, a companion, some days the only living thing with which you have contact. For me, Sambuca was the first pet that was all mine, not the family’s. He was my responsibility, his life was in my hands. Yeah, that’s hyperbolic, but it was that fact that made me realize that he was the first thing I loved that I knew would likely not outlive me. Sure, that’s true for a lot of people in your life, but you’re sort of aware of it in the background, just because of natural order. But I knew, as I petted this cat, as I loved this lively being, that he would be gone well before I was done loving him. And it made him seem so precious.

Loving him also made me aware of what it must feel like, even at the margins, to have kids. Obviously it is not at all the same thing, it is orders of magnitude away, but the blind panic I felt last night, and only a couple times with him before, makes me so amazed at anyone who chooses to parent. How can you live that way, knowing this life you love is so far out of your control? That you can do everything in the world right, and still lose them? That sort of love, even the shadow of it for a pet, is something I now know I am capable of. But the pain of it? That I really don’t know.

What I do know is this. For seven years a fat smoky cat purred next to me and saw me through law school, moving to a new city, breakups, health scares, long nights, early mornings, and everything in between. He was my witness, and he was my confidant. When no one else in the world was there, he was. And he’s gone. I don’t know what goes with him, and I don’t know what comes after. But I’m grateful for the time we had together, and for the love and friendship he showed me, and taught me.

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