China and Carl, October 1990. She's 17 months; I'm 29; which means that developmentally, we were both brash young adults.

China and Carl, February 2010. She's a few months shy of 21, while I'm 49. My midlife, and her old age. Despite her failing health and loss of weight she still looks great; whereas I am clearly road-worn. But at least I've learned how to hold a cat.

My eldest cat, China, is well over 20 years old. She was a rescue kitty — she came to me when I managed the bookstore in Sewanee, and a fraternity boy at the college found her, a stray kitten, and took her to the local vet; the same vet who on the very next day I asked “Do you have any kittens up for adoption?” He brought China out to me, and it was love at first sight. The frat boy, who was a true animal lover, came and talked to me to make sure I would be a good “daddy” for the kitten; I must have passed muster, for he gave his blessing to the vet and China got to come home with me. This was in July 1989. I had an older cat, Julian, whom I loved but with whom I never truly bonded — not like I bonded with China. Whether it was just a matter of disposition, or truly a miracle of human-animal relations, China and I became heart to heart buddies. For years she slept next to my pillow; and whereas Julian was not much of a lap cat, China claimed my lap as her own natural habitat. When Fran and I got married in 1993, I swear China was jealous (she got over it, eventually). Up until the last few years when she has obviously become hard of hearing, she would even come to me when I would call or beckon her (please don’t spread this too widely, for I’m sure most cats would be mortified to learn that one of their own engaged in such dog-like behavior).

With her naturally outgoing personality, China quickly would win over the hearts of pretty much anyone who came calling. She was a graceful jumper — my house in Tennessee was passive solar, with windows twelve feet high from the floor, and probably a good six feet from the nearest rail; China and Julian both would jump from the rail to the windows to bask in the sun, nearly giving me a coronary every time they did it. Even as a middle-aged cat when we first moved into our current home, China would climb onto the dresser and leap over to the bed, falling square onto my chest with terrifying force.

Like the Grateful Dead song for which she was named, China was a true hippie, with a fondness for catnip and good company. But she was also a scrappy little street cat, and always maintained a contentious relationship with the other cats in our home; the introspective Julian, whom she quickly dominated; the much younger and amazingly good-tempered Clarissa, with whom she competed for years (and who now seems to have forgiven her for that long rivalry), and then our neurotic long-hair Furbie, who adopted us one chilly Halloween. China would hiss at one of the other cats just for walking near her.

When I adopted China, she had an apparent infection in one eye, and it was slightly swollen and bloodshot and she would keep it half closed for the longest time. It healed eventually, although the eyelid remained slightly droopy ever since. But overall, she settled into a life of tremendous good health. She did get sick and lose weight in 2005, and a vet told me she was dying; but a friend suggested I change her diet and she promptly bounced back (I changed vets after that). Although she’s been an indoor-only cat here in Atlanta, in Tennessee she had the run of my two wooded acres, where she would routinely bring me “presents” — usually moles or mice, but one time she proudly brought a bird that she, the great huntress, had felled.

When the younger cats arrived, in 1999 and 2002, China settled into the comforts of the second half of life; feisty and irascible with her feline housemates, but still loving to me and friendly to everyone. When Julian passed away in late 2007, she accepted the role of dowager gracefully. Julian had been troubled by arthritis and had not groomed herself for the last year or so before she died, apparently of a stroke just a few months after turning 20. China’s entry into her 20th year has been marked by different problems: in addition to being hard of hearing and increasingly incapable of jumping (with many heart breaking failures, saddest — and most painful — of all being when she couldn’t even make it to my lap without clawing her way up), she appeared to suffer from a bit of kitty-cat dementia, getting confused and lost in the house at night and crying piteously until one of us would get up, go find her, and bring her to bed with us, which would always immediately calm her down.

China in healthier days; May 2004.

She grew thinner as she aged, as had Julian before her, so we thought nothing of it, especially since up until very recently she has always been the most assertive of the three cats in reminding us when it was mealtime. Furbie whines when she is hungry and Clarissa always seems to just politely wait by the food bowl, but China would complain, loudly and insistently, that it was time to get fed.

But recently, that stopped. Fran and I were trying to remember just when China stopped begging for food — two weeks ago? A month? Between the hurly-burly of the Christmas season and my efforts to finish my book, we’re not sure exactly when China gave up on eating. But give up she has. Oh, she’ll still lick at food, especially if it’s rich with gravy; and Fran has bought her some baby-food that, again, she’ll lick at. But it’s clear that, as of this winter, our old lion has crossed a new, and final threshold.

On Saturday China crawled up into my lap while I was reading, and stayed for almost an hour, purring. So many times over the last year or so, when I was writing, I would push China away when she would clumsily, claws extended, try to get into my lap where my MacBook was perched. Now I could kill myself for having done so. But at least on Saturday I had enough presence of mind to let the computer be, and just sit there, petting her as she purred raspily, until she decided she had had enough and let herself down.

Yesterday morning I took her to the vet, fearing what I would learn. Weighing in at a mere four and a half pounds, her body temperature was a seriously low 96 degrees. The vet said that we could do bloodwork and figure out what is wrong, but at her age, even with aggressive treatment, the likelihood of recovery is pretty slim. Fran asked me not to put her to sleep yesterday, and I didn’t, even though the vet suggested that it would be a kindness to do so. I stammered that I needed time to say goodbye. So the vet gave her some liquids and kindly offered to keep doing so, every day until we were ready.

So I can’t decide what to do. Part of me thinks there’s no point in extending her suffering, and that the kind, humane, caring thing to do would be to set up an appointment and give her back to God tomorrow. But another, smaller, part of me thinks that I won’t do that, just yet. Like Bilbo with his ring, I say it’s time to give it up, but then when I think no one’s looking I try to slip it back into my pocket. Worst of all, the grieving part of me is afraid I’ll never forgive myself for willfully and knowingly taking her to her death. How could I take her, the little warrior who always hated vets so magnificently, to that stark flourescent-lit chamber where two final needles will do their irreversible work? After such a long friendship, it feels like the most horrible of betrayals. And telling myself that it would be a far graver cruelty to let her starve to death makes sense only in terms of my Spock-like capacity to think logically, and does nothing to assuage my breaking heart.

I knew this day would come, and I knew it would come soon. But I tried to push it away with fond hopes that China, always such a wonderful, amazing, beautiful cat, would prove to be as remarkable in her old age as she was as a kitten, and would make it to 22 or so. Or so I wished. But now cruel fate has dashed those hopes to shards, and I know that if, like Frodo at the last of it, I grasp her instead of letting her go, the Gollum of her suffering will just come and snatch her away regardless, and I’ll still be left only with my grief.

Last night when I got home from work, Fran was sitting on the loveseat with China, petting her. Her eyes are still bright and aside from how thin she has become, and how unsteady on her feet, she still seems to have plenty of life left in her. I sat on the floor next to her, and began petting her along with Fran. Immediately, she started purring, her raspy old lady purr. Fran smiled. “She wasn’t purring for me,” she observed, matter-of-factly. “But then again, she always was your cat.”

True enough. But underneath the signs of life is a body that is failing. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. So when I take a deep breath, and think about it, and manage to think clearly, I think that I’ll give her (I mean, myself) just a few more days. I want to buy her some fresh catnip and give her one last romp to the tunes of the band that gave her her name. Fran has already given her blessing to opening several cans of cat food every day in the hopes that something will taste good to her geriatric tongue. I’ll take her to the vet and get some fluids over the next few days and maybe on the final day it will feel routine to her. I’ll cry with her and I’ll pet her and I’ll hang on desperately to these last raspy purrs. I’ll tell her over and over again how much I love her and how spending twenty years with her has been such an unspeakably beautiful gift. And then, we’ll say goodbye.

Hamming it up, May 2008

N.B. This is the first of four posts on the illness and death of China, and my grief over her passing. The next entry is The Die is Cast.