Mia

It’s difficult to tell the story of Mia without telling the story of us. Her years marked so many of our big moments, which, I guess, any 14-year chunk of time will do.

Mia came into our lives in 2001. Andy was taking classes at OSU and living with friends. I had just started a new job at Popular Woodworking Magazine, and was living with a friend in a small townhouse in Mariemont. A man my dad worked with had a daughter who had a cat—Mia. This daughter and her husband had a child, and Mia, turns out, bit. They needed to find a new home for their cat.

Andy took her. We had no children. We weren’t even engaged. The idea of owning a cat was charming. She was maybe 2 or 3 years old when Andy took her to OSU, to live on Stadium Drive in University Village, in his messy, college room.

Turns out Mia didn’t just bite children—she bit adults, too. Upon graduation Andy moved to an apartment in Cincinnati. The market was tough and he was working the night shift at Target. One late afternoon, after showering in preparation for his shift at work, Mia attacked him. She charged at him and clamped onto the skin behind his knee, drawing blood.

Still, he kept her.

Andy proposed. We got married. My roommate moved out and Andy moved in. Mia came, too.

Andy got a job in his field. We bought a 104-year-old Dutch Colonial with a shifting stone foundation. We thought we had lost Mia when so many of our friends helped us move from Mariemont to Fort Thomas on a cold and rainy day. Turns out she was so frightened she had hidden herself in the rafters of our basement.

Everything frightened Mia. The Dutch Colonial had a sunroom and in it we had a glass-top table, the back edge of it lined with potted plants. One night, in the middle of the night, I heard the sound of glass, breaking. It was loud enough to wake me up and I saw Mia in our closet, shaking. I woke up Andy to investigate (which he did, curiously, with a rolled-up bath towel as his weapon of choice). Turns out Mia had, we assume, been spooked by her reflection in the sunroom’s windows. She had scattered off the table with such hurry and force she turned over a potted plant, causing the clay to break on the glass-top table. There was no burglar, only our very own scaredy-cat.

Mia hated other cats. Although we could leave her for a few days without intervention, for longer trips we had to rely on family and friends. A trip to a kennel, or vet, or anyone’s house who owned another pet, put her in a panic. She had a heart murmur. Her heart didn’t need any additional distress.

Still, we decided to buy a black lab, Tucker. (That’s Mia in the picture above, glaring at Tucker the day we brought him home.) They had a love/hate relationship. Mostly hate. Mia would get annoyed with Tucker, raise her paw and hiss. Tucker, always the gentleman, would just walk away. And when he did, Mia would go to his bowl and paw out all the water, flooding the kitchen—daily.

We had Sophie. Mia bit Sophie, hard enough to draw blood. This resulted in a trip to the pediatrician’s office and a prescription for an antibiotic. We tried to find a new home for Mia after that. Turns out it’s difficult to find a home for a cat who bites and hates all other cats.

So, we kept her. We taught Sophie, and later the boys, to not talk, touch or look at Mia. That’s probably a bit dramatic but true enough that, for a while, our children were terrified of all cats. And eagerly approached all large dogs. Which is backwards, I know.

Mia moved with us to a 100-year-old foursquare, also in Fort Thomas, five years ago—the same house we’re in today. That move was hard. The boys were three months old. For months I unpacked a box, pumped milk, gave the boys a bottle, changed their diapers, put them down, and unpacked another box. On repeat. I truly have no memory of how Mia fared during that time.

Once the boys became mobile, the basement became Mia’s castle. We never saw her during the day. Often, while taking laundry down to the basement, I would find her sitting on the top basement step, listening, waiting. Once she determined every child was in bed she was upstairs, purring and rubbing up against our legs, desperate for the attention she had missed out on during the day. And I gave it to her.

And that’s the thing about cats. And dogs. And even people, sometimes. Mia, often, was awful. I know. But, like all living, breathing things, you simply had to get to know her. And, in her case, really, really get to know her. But once you did, she was a joy—until a switch buried deep inside her would flip. And then she would bite.

Through the years I learned her triggers. Even the kids knew to never, ever touch her when her ears were back. When on my lap, purring, I would wait for her body to tense. That was her way of saying, “Stop.” A particular twitch slightly behind her shoulders also indicated she was about to draw blood. In all the years of living with her, she only bit me once.

Still, we had to warn everybody. “Don’t touch the cat. She bites,” was spoken in between hellos and welcome hugs. Babysitters were warned. Grandmas were given Band-Aids and apologized to, over and over again. Mia was banned to the basement during playdates.

Mia was a huntress, which was apparent in the number of mice she caught in her lifetime—even near the end of her life. We’re a live-mouse-trap kind of family, so her particular skill caused us (me, mostly) distress. Mia liked to play with her mice before killing them. I remember one particular evening when such awfulness was happening and Andy wasn’t home—and I was in tears. Like all other cats, she left the mice for us, in places she knew we would see them. One early morning I walked downstairs to find Sophie, probably 3, sitting on the couch, watching a show. “Mia killed a mouse,” she said, nonchalantly. “Where is it?” I asked. “Here,” she said. Sophie was sitting next to it. It was on the couch.

Near the end of her life, Mia’s demeanor changed completely. Always a thin cat, she started eating a lot. She gained so much weight that we took her to the vet for tests. We feared the worst, given her age—14 plus 2 or 3 years. Her diagnosis? “She’s just fat,” the vet said.

Mia began living upstairs during the day, even when the kids were wild. She stopped biting. She let the children pet her. She sat on my lap in the middle of the day. Every morning while I poured Tucker dog food, she would saunter over and drink water from his water bowl. Tucker would patiently wait until she finished, and then would drink after her. (But she still splashed water.)

I’ve since researched “end of life” in cats. Her change in disposition was clue No. 1. This lasted several months. A few days before she died, she seemed off—more so than usual. The day before she died, we knew it was coming. We knew in the way she sat, staring but not seeing. The way she walked the perimeter of rooms, over and over again. We knew in the way you just know these things, without really knowing why you know.

We considered calling the vet. But she didn’t seem in pain. And she wasn’t showing any signs of being in pain. We agreed that if she was in pain, we’d take her. A home death, we thought, is preferable—for anyone.

That evening she perked up a bit. But then she began hiding—under the couch, under the kitchen table, under the leather chair. While reading John Grogan’s Marley & Me years ago I learned that pets do this—they find a quiet, hidden place to die, away from predators, as their ancestors did.

Mia settled on underneath the leather chair, in front of the bookcase, in the living room.

I couldn’t stand the thought of her dying alone. So I curled up on the living room rug next to her, one hand under the chair, on her back. I stayed like that for an hour.

Andy had gone downstairs to play video games. Pet losses are hard on him. In grade school he faked a reason to leave the classroom so that he wouldn’t have to watch the end of “Where the Red Fern Grows.” When it comes to hard things, we excel, differently. I can rock a baby for hours, singing “You Are My Sunshine” again and again and again. And again. And while Andy lacks such patience he, on the other hand, can cradle the head of a child who is getting sick, not once dry heaving at the smell. And then he can bathe said child and clean up said mess with nary a complaint or sigh. I fail at this.

We’ve learned to let go, hand over, pick up, take over. It works.

After about an hour, Mia stopped moving completely, and her breathing grew shallow. Perhaps it was selfish of me but I needed to hold her. So in one quick motion I pulled her out from under the chair. She perked up again, and fought me for a moment. I sat on the couch and threw a cream and gray-striped wool blanket over her, covering her completely—even her head. I held her tight against my stomach. The effect, for her, was the same. She felt hidden, but I felt better.

Andy found me like that, on the couch, around 2am. He convinced me to go to bed. So I did, but I took Mia. Like a brand-new mother in charge of a newborn solo for the first time I rested my hand on her, lightly, counting breaths until the sun came up.

With morning we had the children come in to say their goodbyes. The boys had many questions. “Will her body be frozen?” “How long will she stay underground?” “Is she still breathing?” “How will she dig herself out?” The questions were honest, heartbreaking and tiring.

Sophie, older, wiser, but still 7, cried deep tears that made Andy and I cry, too.

The boys and Andy left, but Sophie stayed. So much of what Mia was doing was instinctual. She was dying in the same way her mother died, her mother’s mother died, and so on. I couldn’t help but think that Sophie’s actions were instinctual, too. Woman, girl. Mother, someday mother (perhaps). Sophie stayed. And all three females curled up together on the bed, mother, child, cat.

We stayed like that for a long time. And then, Mia started convulsing. This, I knew I didn’t want Sophie to see. And this, I knew I didn’t want to see. I scooped Sophie up and took her to her room, yelling for Andy. Let go, hand over, pick up, take over. Andy came.

Mia had gotten sick. (I should have thought about this. I should have been prepared with towels, and a box. But this was all a first for me.) Andy moved her to box lined with a towel, and cleaned up the bed. A few minutes more, and Mia was gone.

My parents came over, and Andy and my dad dug a hole in the backyard. (Another thing I could not do, the digging, the moving of the dead body. But he could, for us, for me.) It was muddy and dreary outside. The children each drew a picture, which they put in the hole with Mia, along with the Christmas present we had bought her—she died in December, before the holiday. We said our goodbyes.

The holidays came and went in a swirl, and although we were sad and missed her it was OK. We answered the kids’ questions. We walked out to where we buried her whenever the kids asked. We gave away her leftover food.

Several weeks ago Owen and James began fighting while working on their homework. After yelling at them to stop fighting, I discovered the problem: They had to write the number of people in their family, and the number of pets. James insisted we had one pet—Tucker. Owen couldn’t bring himself to not include Mia. He started to cry. “Of course you can include Mia,” I said. “But it won’t make sense!” James said. “We’ll have different answers!” I assured James it was OK.

Lately, in these long, gray days of winter, I miss her. Especially at night, when she would curl up on my lap, purring, on the brink of drawing blood.

It’s funny, the love we can amass for the pets—and people—who can cause us so much pain but also, so, so much joy. It’s the beauty—and cruelty—of life. And even though the end is hard, I’d do it again. And will do it again. In time.

“Barney was brave, I said.
And smart and funny and clean.
Also cuddly and handsome, and he only once
ate a bird.
It was sweet, I said, to hear him purr in my ear.
And sometimes he slept on my belly and kept
it warm.

Those are all good things, said my mother,
but I still just count nine.

Yes, I said, but now I have another.

Barney is in the ground and he’s helping
grow flowers.
You know, I said, that’s a pretty nice job for
a cat.”

—from The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst