I loved my cat, Othello. I’d been his human for many years and I think it’s safe to say he trained me. Towards the end of his life I would understand the meaning every meow, chirp, and purr he uttered. If I sat down to read or watch TV, he’d jump up on my lap and rub his head against me before curling up in a ball by my side. He was my baby and I needed him as much as he needed me. But that didn’t mean our story was easy or that I wouldn’t, at times, be frustrated with his habit of chewing plastic bags or lovingly nibbling my fingertips as I pet him.
Othello taught me how to love even when it wasn’t easy or convenient.
Despite having grown up with cats, I’d never known one who meowed as often as he did or who wouldn’t fit in a standard size litter box let alone bury his messes. Of course, none of this was revealed to me until after I brought him home and by then I’d made a silent vow to always be Othello’s person. Whatever new challenge he brought before me, I’d adapt because I was responsible for him.
I remember how, when I saw the cats up for adoption at the local Petsmart, I tried to ignore the black one because my very first cat when I was a child was black and I wanted my first cat as an adult to look different. But, as it turns out, black cats seem to be drawn to me in the same way that I was drawn to my childhood cat.
Our family’s first cat was adopted as a kitten before I was born. Later, for a very short time, we had a Siamese cat because my mom wanted one. But the first cat my parents allowed me to pick was a black cat. I was five years old at the time and I thought black cats were magnificent! So, when my parents heard about a litter of kittens in need of new homes, they let me pick the one I wanted.
As I watched them play together, I noticed there was only black one with a trace of white on her belly. I knew she was the one so I told my parents. From then on, she was my cat. I even dressed as a witch once for Halloween and carried her with me as I went trick-or-treating. I held her as long as I could and, when my arms grew tired, I just handed her over to my dad who managed to keep her with us until we were close enough to the house that she could safely run inside on her own.
Fourteen years later, I had to say goodbye to her and didn’t think I’d love another black cat again. But when Othello and I met, I could tell by the way he rubbed his head against the kennel, purring and meowing as I reached out to pet him, that he wanted to come home with me. The sign said he was about 1-year-old, but there was really no way to know for sure. All I knew was he needed a home and I needed a friend. From that day on we belonged to one another.
I was 27 and living alone in North Phoenix when I brought Othello home with for the first time. The apartment I rented was the first place I’d lived away from home that actually allowed pets and I’d missed having a cat.
So what if my job was terrible and I was racking up credit card debt? So what if I had to sell my precious DVD collection once so I’d have enough money for cat litter? At least when I came home it was my space and I could do as I pleased – listen to music, create music, read aloud, play my keyboard. The only downside was the mental illness that poisoned my mind with dark and damning thoughts. Sometimes those thoughts would lead to self-destructive behaviors. In just that one year alone I’d had to go to the hospital twice for stitches and one of those times was followed by an extended stay at in the adult psych unit at St. Luke’s.
Othello witnessed my madness but his presence wasn’t enough to stop me. I continued to care for him and, when I wanted to die, I told myself the lie that someone would find us and give him a new home.
When I had to be in the hospital for a week, my parents took him in so he was never not cared for. Then when I was released with new meds, they gave him back to me and I continued to care for him, even when I didn’t want to care for myself.
Around the holiday season I took a second job to help pay off credit card debt. Meanwhile a friend talked me into adopting another cat to keep Othello company while I was at work. That’s how Desdemona entered our lives. A coworker’s sister’s cat had a litter of kittens and reluctantly gave one of them to me on the sole condition that she would choose which cat she wanted to give away. That’s how I ended up with a tuxedo cat who smelled like it had spent its whole life living in dumpster. As soon as I could, I rushed to the pet store, bought some cat shampoo, and bathed her in the sink until I could tolerate her presence. On the bright side, I was able to get her used to baths young and, when I had to bathe her a few years later, there was no resistance. She just let me cover her with suds and soak her in the warm, bath water. Once she was clean and dry, Othello took a shining to her and they became friends.
When my one-year lease was up, I changed jobs and moved into a house with a new friend and coworker who had a dog, a ferret, and a hamster. So when I introduced Othello and Dessie, our zoo more than doubled in size. But the animals seemed to get along well enough. The dog respected the cats and the other animals were protected by cages making for a peaceful, interspecies coexistence. It was convenient, too, to have a housemate who loved animals. She and I took turns petsitting when one of us had to leave town and animals were treated like royalty.
As for my mental health, it turned out that living with someone I loved and respected was the key to keeping me free from self-harm. Then I lost my job and the one after that and the one after that. Struggling to find work as my credit card debt climbed higher and higher, I briefly moved to Flagstaff and tried to go back to school. But finding work and low-income housing left me with few options. I ended up settling for a new roommate who had emotional issues of her own. On top of that, my new employer could only offer me the graveyard shift. With schoolwork in the mix, I could feel the life-force being sucked right out of me.
By this time Othello and Desdemona had moved in with my parents because there just wasn’t any affordable, pet-friendly rentals in Flagstaff at the time. But as my new roommate’s personal crises escalated, sometimes resulting in loud sobbing that penetrated the walls during the day, interfering with my sleep (and she consistently rejected my help when I’d ask her if she needed anything) I began to book motel rooms just to have a good night’s rest.
Eventually I went to one of the psych hospitals in town and told them I was on the verge of a breakdown and needed help. They agreed to check me in for three days but should’ve kept me longer because, a few days after my release, I made one last grandiose self-harming gesture and, instantly regretting it, called my best friend who helped me get to the ER. After my wounds were tended to, the ER psychiatrist insisted I return to the psych unit. This was the Fall of 2008 when Obama ran against McCain and made history, only I was in a locked unit at the time and couldn’t cast my vote.
Despite everything, I somehow managed to complete a semester’s worth of online classes with surprisingly good grades. But even when I accepted my parents support so I could quit my job and go back to school full time again, I just couldn’t focus in class or keep up with my assignments. That’s when my doctors and counselors urged me to move back in with my parents (where room and board was free) and apply for social security disability income. Reluctantly, I took their advice and gave up trying to be an adult. That was the year I turned 29.
But I was genuinely glad to be reunited with my cats and they’d missed me as well. In our time apart, they never adjusted to my parents dogs, but at least they had each other. Later, when my sister (who also lives at home) adopted an orange cat, the newcomer bullied my cats and turned Othello against Desdemona. For this I nicknamed him “Iago,” but his real name is Samuel.
Samuel was particularly aggressive toward Desdemona, the smallest of the three. She never failed to growl when he was around but would rather run than fight. A couple of times, seemingly unprovoked, Samuel actually cornered her, lashing out with his claws and teeth. At least twice I had tend to her open wounds and once she had to be treated by the vet with stitches and steroids. In the end, my only option was to keep Samuel and Dessie apart. So I moved a litter box into my bedroom and let Desdemona live there, with the door closed all day and all night. It wasn’t the ideal setup but, since it wasn’t even my house, she had no other place to go. Then I had to adapt to the constant smell of the litter box and Desdemona’s early-morning crazies.
I’d done everything I could to create peace between Samuel and Desdemona. I even took inspiration from an episode of My Cat from Hell and installed a new door in my room with a screen cut into the bottom portion so the cats could interact without harming one another. But nothing worked. Furthermore, since Samuel was my sister’s cat and not mine, I had no real authority over him. It wasn’t fair but if someone had to leave, it had to be Desdemona.
After a year of sacrificing the only place in the house I could call mine to a cat, I became emotionally spent and frustrated. Eventually I felt that I had to do what was best for my mental health and surrendered Desdemona to a shelter. This was only after I’d asked everyone I knew if they could take her or if they knew someone who could take her. But those efforts were futile . To make matters worse, all the no-kill shelters were full, leaving me with no other option except leaving her at the humane society and signing a waver saying I wouldn’t try and find out if my baby had been adopted or euthanized.
Samuel also bullied Othello sometimes, but, unlike sweet Desdemona, Othello stood up for himself. In all fairness, I can’t be throwing shade at Samuel all the time either. To begin with, Samuel has his own chronic health problems. To manage, he’s been put on a prescription diet and has to take a pill every evening. In fact, I’ve noticed that much of the Samuel-drama revolved around food my cats ate that he wasn’t allowed to eat. As his primary caregiver, my sister has been responsible for most of Samuel’s food and medicine. It’s just been difficult for me to persuade her to help with Samuel’s behavioral issues, especially when she doesn’t think her cat has a problem.
So for the past 5 years it’s just been Othello and Samuel. My parents are now down to 1 dog, Jax, who they adopted as a 2-year-old. Normally he’s afraid of the cats but, when he’s protecting his human (in this case, my mom) and/or his food, he’ll bark and chase any cat he sees as a threat. The cat can be casually passing by, minding his own business, and Jax will bark and chase. Training him otherwise means training my parents and, at this stage in life, they’re almost untrainable. Samuel eventually adapted to his behavior, but not Othello.
The litter box stayed in my bedroom long after Desdemona was gone because, with the hostility between Othello and Jax (and Othello and Samuel), it just seemed the most convenient. Besides, if I had to be gone for several hours at a time, I could just close the door and let Othello have the room to himself. Everything he needed was there: food, water, and litter box. With the door closed, he felt safe and slept peacefully atop my bed. When the door was open, he’d sleep under the bed where he felt safer.
All of a sudden this year, his health rapidly declined. He lost half his weight but when the vet did routine lab work on him (twice in one year) it all came back normal. So I switched Othello’s diet. For years he’d been one of those strange cats who hated canned food but now, all of a sudden, he loved and devoured it.
Changing his diet meant no more free-feeding. For the rest of his life I’d be giving him 3 and 1/2 meals a day and protecting him from the other animals as he ate.
Whatever illusion of peace and quiet I’d had before Othello’s illness was now gone. Even though he’d always been a vocal cat, now his meows were louder and more frequent than ever. I finally moved his box out of my room but that didn’t change the rate at which I was having to clean it. Often, when I was writing in my room with the door closed and a “Do Not Disturb” sign up, another family member would rudely interrupt my creative stream just to tell me the box stunk and I needed to fix it.
Sometimes I just wished all my cat responsibilities would disappear. Then I’d look at my Othello and, feeling guilty for my cruel thoughts, reach down, pick him up, kiss him and stroke his fur saying, I know it’s not your fault and I love you, really I do.
A change in diet bought Othello a little more time, but not much. His appetite remained constant. As long as he knew none of the animals could steal it from him, he’d eat it all. This brought his weight up temporarily but then, without warning, all he’d gained was lost even as he continued to eat his food and devour his treats.
His final week on earth he’d been vomiting at least once a day. I always knew when Othello was about to vomit, too. His pre-vomit meow was gut-wrenching, like straight from a horror film. I’d hear it, drop everything, and carry him to the bathroom or kitchen (where there was no carpet so the mess was easier to clean up).
I’d reluctantly become the “Official Resident Cat-Vomit Cleaner” anyway, since our house is mostly carpeted and my sister was too squeamish around it. I also knew I was the only one who could do it right.
When I brought Othello to the vet’s for the last time, they put him on the scale. He only weighed about 6 pounds, less than half the weight he was for most of his life. It was then, amidst tears and my confession that I just couldn’t care for him anymore, that the vet confirmed I was doing the right thing. After he brought me a cold bottle of water, he gave Othello his injection and left me alone with my baby to say goodbye.
Say hello to our Desdemona when you see her, I whispered to him. You know I love you and always have. Goodbye, Othello.
Being alone that day had been a choice. After all, the story began as just Othello and me. Also, no one understood him as well as I did and I’d always struggled to share my most intense emotional side with my family. Historically they’ve never quite known how to comfort me in sadness anyway so I’d rather grieve alone than at home with them.
Despite the tears, I know I’m stronger now than I once was. Weeping may look like weakness but it’s really not. Too feel grief and still want to live is evidence of the work I’ve done to become a better person.
My tears that day were also a testament to the love I had for my cat and, for that I welcomed them, especially since, in the months leading up to our farewell, I’d often wondered if my desire to let go of Othello meant I didn’t really love him. But now I realize that just wasn’t true. He and I’d been through a lot together and now his suffering would be over. Letting him go was a necessity and a kindness.
When I returned home that evening, I continued to mourn and yet I also felt a sense of relief. No longer would I be devoting my time to litter boxes, cat vomit, and worrying about my cat’s health. No longer would my room be anyone’s sanctuary but mine. No longer would I have to trust someone else to care for my cat so I could travel for more than a day. After more than a decade, my time became mine again.
I left Othello after he fell asleep and before the vet returned, going straight to my car and driving off without knowing where I’d go. I just needed to drive. I chose my Voyage Imaginaire playlist as my soundtrack because it’s long and I didn’t want to stop driving until I absolutely had to.
Don’t misunderstand. I still have responsibilities, like caring for aging parents and helping with the household chores. But when I have time for me, it really is my time. And I’ll always miss my cat (I had to stop and blow my nose while writing this because of the tears), in his absence I now have the gift of time and I promise not to squander it.