A NOTE BEFORE READING: This is the final installment of a four-part story. To begin at the beginning, go here.
By the late summer of 1998, I was long-overdue for a two-week vacation. Kitty had died the year before, and at the time of my vacation departure, Mort was doing okay, excepting a runny eye. The vet had given me drops to put in his eye, but more importantly, my friend, Carolyn, had accepted the cat-sitting chore. This was a great relief. Inasmuch as Carolyn is a nurse and a cat person, she was unquestionably up to the task of tending a geriatric feline.
The eye drops, however, were not up to the task.
I got a call while I was in New York. Carolyn had taken Mort to the vet because his eye was bad. It had essentially exploded, and it would need to be removed. I was in my friend Tanya's apartment when I called the vet to follow up. And it was a mixed blessing to have one of Tanya's elderly cats sit on my lap as I made that call.
The doctor already had run the tests to see if Mort could go through the surgery, and the test results were phenomenal for a cat who was almost 18. With the exception of the cancer that was spreading through his head, his blood work described that of a two-year old.
I returned to L.A. on the upcoming Sunday, as planned. And first thing Monday morning, I went to the vet's to visit Mort. There he was in his Elizabethan collar – messy eye and all. I
spoke to him that morning through tears as the vet handed me kleenex. I thanked him for not
dying while I was away, and although I knew he might not survive the surgery, I told him I believed he would make it.
He did get through the surgery, and a few days later, Mort came home. He had one less eye, but he was still Mort. Ever-charming, as he always had been.
Regardless of those charms – his ability to smile as only he could; his willingness to purr whenever there was food in the offing; the impishly clever behavior that always reminded me of Artful Dodger – Mort's cancer grew. It grew through his head and into the remaining eye. But even as that eye became blind, he still continued to purr. He still continued to act as if the next meal were nirvana. He seemed, for a while, to have reasons to live.
But one night, I realized he was no longer happy. And I knew, then, that I had to let him go. I knew we would have to go to the vet's the next day. We just had to.
That last night with Mort, I looked at him across the room. He was sitting in the wing-back chair, and I was sitting in my usual perch on the couch. I was anticipating the next day's agenda, and I was sad. I had been saying good-bye to him all week, lying on the floor with him, crying as I told him how much I appreciated what he had brought to my life.
That last night with Mort, I looked at him across the room, and I suddenly realized that we might not make it to the next morning. I realized this because the space in Mort's face – the slit where his eye had been – was opening up. And it seemed to be opening up rather quickly.
And so I freaked (albeit quietly).
I stood up and began to prepare. Obviously, the stitches had been taken out too soon. (That's why his slit was breaking opened, I figured.) And while I hated the idea of taking him to an Emergency Place to die, I knew there were no other alternatives.
I had clung to him too long. This was the price. Mort would have to die among smells that were unfamiliar.
I went to the bathroom and then intended to get back to calling a local friend who might help me take Mort to the all-night vet.
But: an interesting thing happened (or didn't) in those fleeting moments. When I returned from the bathroom to Mort, when I walked over to him, I saw that the slit had not come undone. He was still intact. Riddled with cancer, but intact.
That night, he slept on my head. And the next morning, I took him to our vet.
A few weeks later, I had dinner with Carolyn, and I told her about that last night with Mort. Carolyn's experiences as a nurse, and particularly her experiences with death and dying, had exposed her to so many situations. She listened intently.
I told Carolyn about Mort's “slit” appearing to open up that night – the night before I took him in. I told her about my scrambling to take him to some emergency place and then realizing that I had hallucinated the change in his face.
“Katie,” she interrupted, “When that happened, and you saw the slit open up – did you see a bloody gash, or did you see an eye?”
“Oh my God!” I replied, realizing for the first time what had appeared that night. “I saw an eye!”
Some months later, Robin was back in L.A. We got together for dinner, and I told her about that last night with Mort.
With a loving smile, she said, “Well, that's just very typical of Mort, don't you think? It was his way of giving you that one last wink.
“But:” Robin added, with the playfulness that is such a strong part of her spirit, “Mort just gave it to you in reverse!”
And I believe he's out there still. Peeing where he shouldn't. Getting people to feed him.
Feeling no remorse for being happy.
Maybe he's curled up on that bench on 113th Street right now. Enjoying his own quiet spirit, but also knowing he's part of the traffic. Feeling that he's safe, but never completely out of danger.
Knowing… that a one-night stand can last for years.
Wherever Mort is, he's winking at me.
And I am winking back.