On February 7th, I said goodbye to a family member who has been with me nearly sixteen years.
Maxwell was originally dubbed Maxwell House Coffee, but he carried many names over the years. Maximus Totalus Nimbletoes. Fluffers. Maxwellus. Precious. Baby. Love. Just ‘Max.’
Maxwell came into my life shortly after I came clean about being molested for four years. At the time I was a member of a local church, and someone there had a relative in middle-of-the-state nowhere who fed the stray cats. All of them would run away when approached by humans, except one. No one claimed him. No one there wanted him, but he wanted to belong to a person.
He was driven to Belton, Missouri. I remember the first time I saw him. I was in the parking strip outside of the Methodist church, anxiously waiting and chatting with our cat connection. Up pulled a pickup truck, and in the passenger seat was a middle-aged woman with a black and white cat on her lap. He was meowing. When the woman handed him over to me, she was saying, “He doesn’t need to be in a box or anything, he’s just fine in your lap. He rode in my lap the whole way here–all four hours.”
I wish I remembered who these good Samaritans were. I only know that they were connected to my church and, though I’m no longer in any way religious, I am forever thankful that they gave me the gift of Max.
The first night, he hid inside the mechanisms of a reclining chair. My mother and I spent a frantic hour the next morning trying to find him. But, sooner than could be expected, he was prancing around the house like he owned it.
He was loud. He meowed a lot and had this amazing trilling purr like a squeaky motor. I fell in love with him.
Maxwell was dubbed my “therapy cat,” since he was brought into my life during the aftermath of the molestation revelation. During all that time with the court cases and the meetings with police officers, lawyers, and judges, he was there waiting for me when I got home. So long as I scooped him up, kissed his forehead, and wandered around with him, he was happy.
When I was sixteen, and Max was three, I had a low point. I sat at the foot of my bed with a knife and wanted to end it all. I knew how to do it. I wanted to do it. Friends and family and school and my life seemed to be on this endless downhill spiral. I sat there in the dark, and just as I reached for the weapon my closed door started to shake on its hinges. Maxwell attacked the door from the opposite side, crying and scratching and trying to turn the doorknob. He hadn’t ever been this adamant before. I reached over and opened the door just enough to let him in. He came over to me, his eyes slitted, and rolled into my lap. He batted his paws up toward my chin and just stared at me.
I understand that people anthropomorphize their animals, but I could swear he was glaring at me. As though he was saying, “Even if you can’t take care of yourself, you’ve got to take care of me.”
I had a couple other moments through the years, but nothing as close as that. I’ve credited this cat with saving my life. Even when he was annoying and yowling in the wee hours of the morning, I shut my eyes and reminded myself–he saved me. This cat saw me when no one else did.
The only time we were ever apart was a brief six-month span between my mother kicking me out and my flying back to Missouri to claim him. He was my carryon from the Kansas City International airport all the way to San Jose International. Our flights weren’t full, and on both planes, we had the last row of seats to ourselves. I pulled him onto my lap after takeoff and unzippered his carrying case just enough to let his head poke out so he could watch the clouds go by. For all seven hours of travel time, he never stopped meowing. When we got back to my room in California, he gratefully sank into the blankets that smelled like me and took a long catnap.
A few months later we were living in a houseboat in Redwood City. We lived there for a little over a month. Max saw ducks for the first time. We sat on the back of the boat, me with my feet dangling out over the water and an arm loosely around him so he didn’t go wandering off. When the ducks swam by he quickly crouched, and then peered around my body making clacking noises as they went on their way. He explored every inch of our little studio on the water, even going down into the bilge. It was rusty down there, so when he reappeared he looked like a calico instead of a tuxedo.
Shortly after the bilge exploration, Max went missing for a full day. I was frantic. At the time, I didn’t have access to a printer, so I hand-wrote multiple ‘Lost Cat’ notices with a sketch of Max on each of them and posted them around the marina. My uncle came to help look for him, and as the sun set and we retreated back to the houseboat, my heart sank. I couldn’t believe that after everything we had gone through I’d lost him.
Then my neighbor, a burly Honduran with an illegal second-story addition to his houseboat (he had sailed out into the bay to do the construction), turned off his mariachi music. Then turned it back on. Then off again. Next thing I knew, he was leaning out of his boat to knock on our window (the boats were parked very close together) and shouted, “Hey, aren’t you missing a cat?”
Max had found his way into my neighbors’ boat through an open bathroom window, and then into his bilge. The neighbor let me come over as we lifted floorboards to try and find exactly where Max’s meows were coming from. Over and over, the neighbor exclaimed, “I couldn’t believe it, I can’t believe it! My music was on really loud and I kept hearing this ‘meow, meow’ and I thought is that a cat? And it was a cat. He’s loud!”
He was. Thank god. The next morning my neighbor left to go on a multi-week trip back to Honduras. I don’t even want to think about what would have happened had Max not made himself known.
We moved to my uncle’s condo after a month at the houseboat, and that became our landing pad. Maxwell was indoor-outdoor there, where a large wall separated the garden-like setting of the complex from the busy street beyond. He got in tussles with neighborhood cats, especially a big Maine Coon, but almost always came out on top. He killed a crow. He found my missing snake after nearly three months and brought him back unharmed.
We moved out of the condo, and then back, and then out again. Men came into my life and left it. My snake died. I started working with a local animal rescue group to foster cats and kittens. Maxwell showed them the ropes and tolerated them well. He was always patient. Over a dozen felines came and went. A few stayed for months, others only weeks.
Eventually, the rescue organization let me know that they were going to be winding down. I was going to be placed with one final kitten. Gizmo was the only kitten from a feral colony that was gentle and tame enough to be placed with people. He was fixed when he arrived at nine weeks old. The previous foster had run out of space.
Max never needed a “break-in” period with other animals. He was cautious at first, but he never attacked or hurt anyone, and was just aloof for a few days while adjustments occurred. But when I presented him with Gizmo, Max did something he’d never done before. He leaned forward, started licking the little gray cat, and after a minute or two just walked away. They were inseparable from that moment on.
Max and Gizmo groomed each other constantly. It was adorable. Up until the end, they would cuddle belly-to-belly in a ying-yang shape. I’d always been told that two male cats will never get along together, but Maxwell and Gizmo had a bromance made in heaven. Max was nine when they met.
Shortly after this, I met my first husband. After our marriage we moved to Nevada, taking the two cats with us. All in all, Maxwell must have moved with me over fourteen different times. Almost always without needing to be in a crate. He even went on a few road trips with me. My uncle, Maxwell and I went down to Ventura once and stopped at a beach along the way. Maxwell wasn’t a big fan of the ocean–I think it was too loud and smelly–but he rolled in the sand for a bit and then ran away from the seagulls. During the actual drive, he stood on the center console of the car and purred.
One of the last big road trips Max and I had was when I left my first husband and drove from Nevada to Kansas City. He and Gizmo shared an extra large crate. Max peed on me for the first and only time when I let him out to ride on my lap. He wasn’t happy about the accommodations.
And then we were here. For the last two and a half years of his life, Max was back in the state from which he hailed. He was on the decline at this time. Two years ago he was diagnosed with early stages of kidney failure. He went on a specialty diet (Gizmo too, by default), and we drew blood every six months to ensure that he was doing okay. His kidney levels stayed the same. Steady was good.
During these last six months, he was going downhill fast. Screeching and yodeling in the night. He lost weight, especially in the weeks before his passing. The vet was pretty determined that he had developed cancer of some kind. His white blood cell count was off. Without further testing–and lack of funds prevented this–we wouldn’t know for sure, but the signs were clear. Max was done.
Making the call was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made. I understand now why the veterinarian has you sign a release form. In the days afterward, all I wanted to do was barge back into that office, grab one of the staff by the shoulders, shake them and demand that they give me my cat back. I’ve rarely cried so hard in all my life.
Sometimes I still can’t believe that he’s really gone. I keep expecting to hear his meow or feel him purring against my chest. I want to hold him and smell his head. He smelled so good–I don’t even know what he smelled like, but it was amazing–even up to the very end. He had the most beautiful coat and a ridge along his head that reminded me of a Klingon. His eyes were expressive. They could show annoyance and distaste just as easily as love and affection.
My heart still hurts. Physically hurts. In the weeks and days since his passing, it has felt like there is a metal band constricting my ribs, holding my breath in and making my heart pound. I have regrets now. I yelled and lost patience sometimes in the end, because he would not stop meowing. He was telling me he was in pain, and I was so frustrated from lack of money and a sense of impotence that I know I startled him sometimes. I’m so fucking sorry that I did that.
I’m still hurting too much to see a light at the end of this. A lesson, or a sense of peace, has so far eluded me. I just want to grieve him. It’s hard to look at the cold metal urn that his remains are inside and think that’s all he is now. That, and memories.
Every day I remember something else. A little vignette or two.
Like the time at the condo with him perched on the rooftop like a gargoyle, and me on the balcony enjoying a cigarette, when an earthquake hit. He crouched but didn’t cry out. I went for cover in the door frame. It lasted seconds. Afterward, I held him for over an hour.
He liked to be held, but he was never a lap cat unless you had your legs out straight. Then he would drape himself over you with his paws hanging down. I called it his ‘jungle cat’ pose. Just like a leopard on a tree branch, he wanted to remain stretched out. I never wanted to move him when he was like that, even when my legs fell asleep and would start pricking painfully.
His favorite kind of toy for a long time were those feathers on a stick. I got him one and walked over two miles with it sticking out of my backpack like I was on my way to a sex party because, yes, it looked just like those feather ticklers you see in adult toy stores. I did that for him because I loved him.
Through boyfriends and girlfriends, broken relationships and fractured families, across three states and sixteen years, Max and I were inseparable. I never wanted to accept that he would be gone one day. Now I have to.
Animals are family. Max was family. I’m glad that he’s no longer in pain, but this hurts. I loved him more than I thought it was possible to love a pet. And he was more than a pet. He was my companion and friend and confidant. We explored together. Grew together. Changed together. He never judged me or, if he did, he kept it to himself.
I miss him.
I always will.