it's taken me some time to come around to writing about how chuck died. when we first started dealing with his cancer, it fortified me to think that talking about my research and how we used what we learned might benefit someone in a similar situation; i wanted so badly for his suffering to mean something. after failing so utterly to protect him - after losing him so quickly and so suddenly that i feel like a great hand came together out of nothingness and simply took him, he was taken - i don't know that i have the right to talk about guardianship at all.
back when our week-long trip to california and arizona to visit family still seemed like a possibility, i cancelled our plans with our customary petsitter and arranged for a vet tech from our oncologist's office to come take care of chuck and steve. though she seemed wonderful and had much more experience with veterinary chemo patients than we did, it didn't feel anything like right to leave chuck, and i dropped out of our plans. i spent a morning on what felt like grief burlesque, calling hotels, rental car companies, and airlines to explain that i needed the indulgence of a refund because my cat was dying. you don't know me, but i'm about to fall apart on the phone to you because my cat is dying. i should be the one to call everyone, joe said, because it's harder to refuse a crying woman. he was right, i suppose, as everyone but jetblue agreed to let me out of my portion of our commitments. they had lost animals too, those representatives in phoenix and los angeles, and they were so sorry. my voice was gone by the time i took down the last cancellation number. it was such a relief to know i wouldn't be leaving him, that my vacation could be a week with him in our apartment.
march in my desk calendar is full of mysterious initials; i haven't referred to it in months. i continued giving chuck mirtazapine, his appetite stimulant, for a few more days, and started him on zofran, an anti-nausea medication, which did little to keep him from throwing up prednisone, his oral steroid. on our oncologist's orders, we stopped giving him leukeran, the oral chemo that works on 80 percent of cats with lymphoma (but not ours). on thursday, march 14, i begged a livery cab driver not to kick me out of his sedan for having a cat in my bag - he was so sick, i just needed to get him to his vet for a follow-up ultrasound and a flow cytometry test (a last-ditch non-biopsy attempt to diagnose small-cell lymphoma), he wouldn't leave any kind of residue in the car - but we returned to the cold and the curb anyway. you've got to go, mami. on friday, march 15, joe flew to arizona and i brought chuck back to the vet to take a chance on elspar, the $500 one-time subcutaneous chemo that, if effective, would confirm for us that he had large-cell lymphoma. more prednisone and zofran that weekend, and no change from the elspar. posters on the lymphoma message board told me i needed to educate myself about "assisted feeding," so i watched a bunch of youtube videos of a woman who assured me her cat wasn't traumatized in the slightest. on st. patrick's day, without joe's knowledge or consent, i bought high-calorie food and three impossibly huge syringes from the little pet shop near our old apartment in hell's kitchen. i stayed in bed all of the next day, curled around the limp C of chuck like the border of a copyright symbol.
our oncologist called on tuesday to tell me that the flow cytometry had confirmed once and for all that we were dealing with small-cell lymphoma. i took the train back up to her office for cytoxan, a different oral chemo, and more zofran. joe came back from arizona on wednesday, the first day of spring, and we steeled ourselves for new, more serious treatment. there are notations for C, C3, and CER smattered across that week in my calendar - i think CER was a different kind of appetite stimulant? - and little Vs for each day chuck vomited. there was no vomiting by thursday or friday of that week, as i think he'd stopped drinking water at that point. he was holed up at the back of my underwear shelf in the closet, back where i used to accidentally poke him in the nose because i couldn't see him when i reached for a bra in the dark.
on saturday morning i pulled him from that cubby as gently as possible, and he staggered when i set him down. i unwrapped one of those horrible syringes and the food i tried to coax into chuck's mouth didn't even make it; he couldn't close his mouth. we took one last black car up the west side highway to one of our oncologist's colleagues, who made it clear that leaving chuck to be stabilized at the clinic overnight would be a long shot at best. my chuck, the thought of you dying alone in a cage in that place crumpled me like a tissue.
we were ushered down to an underground room with a leather couch. chuck came back to us in a little plush donut of fabric, arranged to look as if he could stand up whenever he felt like it. i thanked him for taking care of jude for so many years, and for teaching steve how to be a cat. i told him i knew we were for each other at the shelter in san francisco when i turned back to see his little black ears crest the bottom of the window, when he stood watch for me for the first time. i told him i was so lucky to have a shadow, and i told him i was so sorry. we pressed the little buzzerless button to summon the vet back.
a thin young guy with a beat-up acoustic guitar boarded the train home with us at bryant park and sang.
wouldn't that save you?
wouldn't that save you?
wouldn't that save you?
a few weeks later i got a call about picking up chuck's ashes. the bag with the box and our vets' notes of condolence included a little plaster piece with the impression of chuck's paw, something i consented to before they left us and that they made after he died. CHARLIE BRONSON stamped around the edge. they'd gotten his name wrong at intake a month earlier and i never corrected it; i'd told myself he was at the doctor's with an alias, and that nothing could happen to him if they couldn't call him by his name. i want to throw it in the river.