In Plain Sight

Black Cat, Gideon Rubin, 2012. Courtesy the artist and Hosfelt Gallery.

The Last Dying Cat

When the family pet nears the end, of course there is sadness. But there is also every other emotion.

Most nights, I throw Tess in the garage around three in the morning, after she pees in the bed. We have become those people, the ones whose cat pees in their bed.

Tess is 19. She’s scratching on the garage door now, as I write. She’s been scratching for the last hour. And yowling.

I let her inside. She’s still yowling. The garage stinks. It’s wretched, a cat piss stench no one should become inured to. But I have. And Tess has once again taken a crap on the concrete floor, not in her clean litter box. She is saying, “Put me in the garage at three in the morning, and I will crap on the floor and not in the clean litter box.” If I’m not vigilant, I will step in this crap, sometimes in my wool clog slippers, sometimes in my bare feet, sometimes in my professor shoes as I’m getting on my bike to go to work.

Tess craps inside the house as well. Her pee pools on the hardwood floor. There is a litter box here also, near the garage door, and she sometimes uses it to outsized acclaim. But if she has peed, or crapped, in this litter box recently, and it has not yet been cleaned, she pees or craps on the floor. She’s saying, “Keep up with the litter box, or this is what happens.”

Ours is a clean, tidy home, with minimal clutter. We sweep and mop and vacuum. Our two boys are encouraged to rinse out the sink after spitting their toothpaste. I make the bed most mornings, etc. But visitors entering our home raise their chins, tilt their heads to the side. Their nostrils flare.

Christine maintains that Tess has always been bad. This is part of her more comprehensive belief that all cats are worthless, especially compared to dogs. Christine asks: “Can a cat bark at a burglar, the way Rocky barks at the mailman?”

And yet: Christine and Tess play bat the dangling sock; Tess sits in Christine’s lap and purrs while Christine reads a magazine; Christine talks to Tess in her pet voice, in the third person. “Tessie was crying and mama came and picked her up.”

Still, cats: worthless. Tess: the worst cat of all time. This is how Christine felt this past weekend, at three in the morning, because Tess had once again lost control of her bladder, and peed in the bed, and Christine was stripping the sheets and spraying Nature’s Miracle Advanced Formula on the mattress, and I was walking Tess through the dark house to the garage. Tess was purring, and I was petting her and saying reassuring things. She can’t help it. She doesn’t want to pee in the bed. It’s just that she has repressed her darkest, most shameful feelings, like Don Draper.

Just in terms of laundry alone—the pissed-on sheets and blankets and comforters, the washing and drying and hanging on the line, the long, sordid mornings with the stained and splotched mattress—not worth it, according to Christine. But one reason we wash so many sheets is that Christine lets Tess sleep under the covers, curled against her legs. This decision was made years ago. I was opposed. Tess should sleep at the end of the bed, on her small, fleece blanket. But Christine outvoted me. So when Tess loses control of her bladder, her pee soaks right through the fitted sheet and mattress pad and into the mattress. Christine and I dream that we’re wading slowly out into a lake, and we wake and it’s three in the morning and the sheets are soaked in piss.

Tess is the last Cooney-Martin cat. There will be no others. No kittens, no adopted strays, no trips to the shelter. Done. The last cat. Tess.


Each night Christine sets a glass of water on her nightstand. Then she goes to the bathroom to wash her face and brush her teeth. Tess is curled up on her blanket at the foot of our bed, asleep. When Christine returns, Tess has her whole face immersed in Christine’s water glass, drinking thirstily. Sometimes, from my side of the bed, I observe this, bemused. Sometimes I thwart Tess and return her to her blanket. I have to thwart her several times, because she is a persistent cat. Sometimes I am reading a book or magazine, a poor night watchman, and Tess is drinking away. Sometimes I say to Christine, “That’s nice of you to bring Tess her glass of water.”

Christine won’t drink from the glass of water after Tess has had her face in it, because, Christine says, “Tess has been licking her butt all day,” which is an exaggeration. Christine leaves and returns from the kitchen with a new glass of water and sets it down on her nightstand and gets in bed. Tess gets up from her blanket and walks atop Christine’s body intending to drink from the new glass of water, and Christine tosses Tess off the bed. Tess lands on her feet.

“She’s old,” I say. “It’s hard for her to climb back up.”

Christine says, “She needs the exercise.”

She doesn’t want to pee in the bed. It’s just that she has repressed her darkest, most shameful feelings, like Don Draper.

Tess was once spry and athletic. In the middle of the night, she jumped up and flipped on and off the light switch in our bedroom. Now, she can no longer jump up on the bed. She reaches up and places one front paw on the bedframe. She reaches higher with the other paw and hooks it on the top of the footboard. She stands tall on her hind legs and claws her way onto the mattress. A geriatric cat pull-up, painful to watch. She does this many times a day. The wooden bedframe is pockmarked from her claws. We could build her a ramp, as I’m certain some have done. But no.

Christine is wrong about all cats being worthless. Some cats are great. If you ask people about cats, as I did recently, you’ll hear that some cats are the life of the party, the mayors of their apartment complex, admired and respected, pleasant and uncomplaining, magnanimous. Some are formidable mousers, or birders. Some take leisurely walks around the block with their owners without leashes; others go camping and sleep in sleeping bags. Of nine graduate students in creative writing surveyed, a third shared a dying cat story of their own. Their dying cat on an IV drip, administered at home. Their dying cat with no teeth. Their cat, dying, after a brutal assault by a neighbor cat, in which their cat dragged himself home barely alive but miraculously recovered, and later somehow got lost in the mall, and then had his face and a brief profile in the pages of a local newspaper, but was otherwise never seen again.

No one needs another dying cat story. Still, people will tell their dying cat stories, and some will listen. Bertolt Brecht said, “It’s the superfluous for which we live.”


Is it even right to say that Tess is dying?  She’s incontinent. She’s thin and arthritic. (In her middle age, she let herself go and became so fat that neighbors consistently mistook her for pregnant.) But now her hips have atrophied and hollowed. She sleeps and sleeps. She yowls but isn’t hungry or thirsty. Is she in pain? Is she just tired of the whole business? We used to put Tess outside and she’d be gone for hours, slinking in the tall grass, climbing trees, walking the tops of the cinderblock walls that divide the houses and yards of the neighborhood. The salad days. Now we pick her up and pet her, and she stops yowling. She purrs. Christine sometimes gives Tess a warm bath. Tess purrs as Christine massages the soap deep into her fur and scalp. Tess purrs as Christine towels her off like an infant. Damp and dripping, she’s fur and bones.  


According to a helpful article on, “Towards the End: From Feline Old Age Through to Pet Bereavement,” Tess’s “aberrant behaviors” aren’t all that aberrant. Not for an old cat:

“They may deem the box ‘too dirty’ to use if they used it recently...”

“Older cats often become talkative, spending less time physically active and more time expressing their opinions.”

Trouble with “the waterworks” is all too common: The kidneys are usually the first organs to go. From reading this, I deduced that Tess’s routine with Christine’s water glass may be an attempt to self-medicate, her own version of dialysis. I suggested this to Christine, who said, “She has a water bowl in the kitchen.” I asked Christine if she would take Tess to the vet. Maybe she has a urinary tract infection, or a partial blockage?

“Why don’t you take Tess to the vet? She’s your cat,” Christine countered, even though she knows that taking a pet to the vet is her department. 

On those nights when Tess does not pee in the bed, she still goes to the garage around three in the morning because she’s standing on my pillow, purring in my ear.

Company, anyone?


How many nights in a row would Tess have to pee in the bed before enough was enough? Five? Ten?

When I think about putting Tess down because she’s driving me crazy, ravaging my sleep, I can’t help but wonder: How will things go for me someday when I’m in diapers and think that Christine is my mom?

The more I think about it, the more I think that “How much are you willing to put up with?” is not the right question. Because no matter how tired I am, the answer is always: I could put up with more. Yes, I need four cups of coffee just to get going on the day. But I am not at my limit. To say so would be ridiculous. To even suggest it is to fail to recognize how many people are, actually, at their limit, or beyond it, and not because of their old cat.

The question for Tess is the same question for anyone. What is her quality of life? She purrs when petted. She sleeps a lot. She wanders outside and lounges in the flower bed in the sun. She swats Legos around the floor like hockey pucks. Not a bad life.

Wait. One more thing. Tess doesn’t just pee on the bed. Sometimes she pees on us. We wake, we strip, we wash our pajamas. It’s no fun waking up because an animal is peeing on you. It’s likely that some readers, who had been more or less with me up to this point, have just drawn the line. (“That’s my limit. Right there.”) But, truly, if you’re looking for a Zen lesson, what could startle you more awake to your very real life than your old cat peeing on you? No need to spend an austere weekend in a monastery following difficult-to-pronounce rituals. Life is suffering.


Often, Tess sits quietly next to me as I write, purring, as she is doing now. She’s fed, she’s rested. She sits, she purrs. It’s nice. At these times, it seems terrible that I have so often contemplated putting her down. She sits at my feet, like an Egyptian statue. She purrs. But eventually, after 10 or 20 minutes, she will start yowling and I will ignore her, and then she will bite my leg. She wants to sit in my lap. I’m writing, and there’s a part of my brain waiting for her to bite my leg, and so my concentration isn’t one hundred percent. Usually, before she bites me, but sometimes just after, I put her outside to brave the wilds of the neighborhood and Boogie, the big neighbor cat.  


When Tess was younger, any number of things she did would have been perfect for YouTube. But by the time the internet came along, Tess was middle-aged and overweight, and no longer opening the dresser drawer, carrying my underwear in her mouth, leaping onto the bed and putting my underwear on my face as I slept. She did this once to a friend of mine visiting from out of town, who was staying in our room. He was irritated.

So often, after a loved one dies, the family speaks of the deceased as if she had done no wrong. Not so with Tess.

At four this morning, Tess was dry heaving on her blanket at the foot of the bed. Christine picked her up and she started peeing. She peed all over Christine and all over the floor as Christine walked her through the house to her litter box. I was sleeping, unaware. Christine set Tess down in the litter box. Tess leaned against the side of the litter box like she was drunk. She didn’t move. This had never happened before. Christine stood Tess on the floor. She wobbled, like she might tip over. Christine picked her up and petted her, but Tess wouldn’t purr. Her eyes were open and empty. Christine woke me and said, “I think Tess had a stroke.” I took Tess in my lap and went to the couch. I pet her but she didn’t purr. Christine showered. Tess wouldn’t lie down in my lap. She wouldn’t sit. She stood. She didn’t want her chin scratched. The house was dark. I put Tess back on the bed, on her blanket, and it took her ten minutes before she lay down, slowly. At six, we woke the boys and told them what had happened. They are 14 and 11. They have never not known Tess. She has always been a part of their lives. At breakfast, we told them it was time to put Tess down, that it wasn’t right to keep her alive if this was what her life was like. They each went back on their own to the bedroom to say goodbye.

Christine called the clinic. Terry could come to the house at five. After she hung up, Christine said, “Just last night, she was playing bat-the-underwear when I was sorting laundry.”

Christine and I spent the day with Tess. When we picked her up to hold her, she didn’t purr. When we set her down, she sat or stood and the minutes went by. Eventually, she lay down but it took her a long time.

Christine brought her a glass of water. Tess drank tentatively, but then gagged and coughed. Then she threw up.

So often, after a loved one dies, the family speaks of the deceased as if she had done no wrong. A saint. Not so with Tess. Tess was a rascal, exasperating, a character. We don’t miss her peeing in the bed. We don’t miss her waking us up in the middle of the night. We miss her. We walk back to the bedroom and expect to see her curled up sleeping on her blanket at the foot of the bed. How much time will pass before she doesn’t enter our minds as we enter the bedroom, before we don’t expect to see her at all?

A few minutes before Terry arrived with her shots, Christine was petting Tess, and Tess was finally purring a little, but quietly, and Christine said, “You’ve been a good girl. Today.”

Gregory Martin is the author of the memoir, Stories for Boys (Hawthorne Books), which was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection and Seattle’s One City One Book selection for 2013. Martin’s first book, Mountain City (FSG/North Point), was a New York Times Notable Book, and is referred to by some people in the town of Mountain City (population 33) as “the book.” Martin’s recent essays and articles have appeared in The Sun, Kenyon Review Online, Witness, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. More by Gregory Martin