Episodes: Riley


When I was growing up, the death of an animal wasn't so much a moment for mourning as something that happened. We had pets, sure, but the realities of farm life (especially farm life near a somewhat busy highway) meant that pets came and went more quickly than they might for other kids I knew.

I remember coming home from church one Sunday to find one of our cats had dragged itself onto our deck after being hit by a car, wanting to die closer to home. It was alarming, but not particularly grief-inducing. Cats lived; cats died. That was that.

A few times, a death stuck out in my memory. In the third grade, Trixie, the border collie who had been my companion from toddlerhood, got into a fight with a skunk that turned out to be rabid. While I was at school, my father took Trixie out into the yard and shot her, before she could threaten anyone. He buried her before I got home, and I cried about it. I'm not sure I cried over other pets.

When I tell stories like this to people I know now, they're often horrified by, say, the casual way I toss off that my father shot our dog, rather than having the vet put her to sleep. But it was just different on the farm. You were more connected to cycles of seasons, of life and death, of everything. You felt the weight of time more, and even the most beloved pet could run off or perish. It was just the way things were.

So I had never had to put one of my pets to sleep until today, when I was well into my 30s.

***

The night Riley decided he belonged in our lives was also a night when I was quite certain I didn't want to be myself any more. I had moved from South Dakota to California on a vague notion that I had always wanted to live there and a general sense that my career could only continue to go up and up and up. Moving to the dull, smoggy town of Riverside, I was quickly disabused of both notions. I started obsessing over earthquakes and the peak oil theory, over the idea that we were all doomed and didn't know it, that we would topple into the sea.

My wife, however, thrived. She got a job at a movie theater and kinda rocked it. It wasn't what she wanted to be doing long term, but she made friends and liked what she did and seemed like she was becoming more fully herself. I had expected my story to start unfolding once we arrived in California, then realized I was playing second fiddle to somebody else's unlikely tale.

Which brings us to Christmas night. Unable to travel home, due to lack of vacation time at the newspaper where I worked, I instead volunteered to work that night shift, figuring it was an easy way to get some overtime without having to work too hard. (Indeed, the night before, we'd all been released around 7:30 to celebrate Christmas Eve.) Instead, we ended up working until well after 9:30. Now, the shift technically ran to midnight, but I was still grouchy at having spent my Christmas at work.

I drove to the theater, and Libby was swamped with the Christmas night crowds. She tried to convince me to see something (King Kong as I recall, which we had both already seen and loved), but I was mad that I had become mired in a life that already felt inescapable. I told her I would go home and come back to pick her up later.

And at home that night, sitting at my computer, I first heard the meows out in the apartment parking lot.

Later, when I returned home with Libby, Riley trotted out of the darkness, mewing excitedly, like he knew we would be back, and he was ready to come live with us. He was jet black with green eyes and still just enough kitten in him to want to play 100 percent of the time. We took him in, thinking he was a Christmas present gone astray. We didn't understand, yet, that he was a Christmas present zeroing in on its target at last.

***

I am in New York for upfronts, which means that I have not technically been in the room as one of my pets was put to sleep still. My wife bore that journey alone, though shortly before we finally let Riley slip past the cancer that had devoured him so quickly, she let me talk with him on video chat. I rubbed the phone screen and wished it was him.

The last time I touched him was before I left for the plane, frantic because I had lost my wallet, and I reached out and brushed against his too-frail frame. He was laying in the bathtub, and his fur was wet, and even though the vet said we would have two months, most likely, I didn't like how he didn't seem to care that he was wet. I should have held him, but I was running late for the plane.

That night, laying in the hotel bed, playing a game on my phone, I felt a weight land on the bed beside me, walk up the length of the bed, then nestle in beside me. I instantly thought Riley had died and come to visit me. But he was still alive, and would actually thrive a few days more before finally giving out. Maybe I was hallucinating. Maybe I felt guilty about leaving. Maybe I knew. Maybe ghosts aren't bound by time. Why would they be?

***

This is probably why when I talked to her last night, when we both knew how unlikely it was that I would be back home and see him one last time, I asked my wife to tell him to visit me if he should pass. I was just crazy enough to think it would work.

Instead, he went into my office and sat under my chair, where he used to hang out by my feet (he loved feet, especially being petted by them), where I wasn't. I hate to think he was looking for me.

***

I was taught, as a child, that animals didn't have souls, that we could be sad when we lost a trusted companion, but we shouldn't be too sad, because this was just part of life. But now that I think about it, isn't that even sadder? If you believe in an afterlife, where you will be reunited with loved ones, why shouldn't Trixie and Riley be there waiting for me, too?

***

We probably shouldn't have taken him in. He had too much of the feral cat in him, even into his old age, though he eventually settled into his dotage and became very warm and loving and sweet. When he was younger, though, he made life hell for our older cats, and Boo (the one cat who was still older than him) remained wary of him his whole life.

But he learned how to be a housecat, surrounded by other cats. He ceded his place at the head of our cats' pecking order a few years ago, probably because he liked sleeping more, but every time we adopted a kitten, he would be endlessly patient with the kitten's needy mewling and playing and batting.

Libby and I are not great at externalizing our emotions sometimes. We often end up trying to funnel those emotions into some thing or object, hoping it will do the talking for us. This is, I think, why we've ended up with so many cats. We find ourselves lost, and we pick up something needier than ourselves in hopes it will guide us back where we need to go.

Riley did that, too, of a fashion. That Christmas night, he probably just wanted to be warm, but he, too, was an alien taken from a familiar environment into one where he felt much more constrained. He learned to be comfortable, and we did, too. He was such a fixture of our lives that I stopped noticing him, and that was my fault.

I had wanted one more night, and here I am, laying in this hotel bed, alone, and thinking that I was probably just hallucinating after all.

***

As most pet owners do, I think, Libby and I gave all of our cats personalities that roughly matched their feline selves.

Riley was always a little outsized, like he had too much inside himself to sit still, which somehow got translated, in our heads, into a love of show tunes, probably because I love show tunes, and it was a fun thing to imagine a cat being into. Indeed, one of the last jokes I remember us making before we realized he was sick, really sick, was that he might have to move to New York to try out for Bette Midler's replacement in the new revival of Hello Dolly.

As you can probably imagine, my parents never tried to tell me that one of my pets moved to the farm after it died, because well, what on Earth could that mean? I imagine I won't be able to tell my own children that, because I'd rather not lie to them but I also don't want them to hope they'll get to see their beloved pet when they visit Grandma and Grandpa.

But tonight, I thought, walking by the Shubert Theatre on 44th, where Bette is slaying them in the aisles eight times a week, why not believe, for a bit, that he's not dead, that he's just moved to New York? What might happen if I opened the doors of the theater and saw him again, the waiters of the Harmonia Gardens lining the massive, golden staircase, arms outstretched, voices rising into a "Well, well, helllloooooooooooo, Dolly"?

If that happened, I wouldn't try to approach, I like to think. I would sit in the audience, and I would watch, just a while longer, as he climbed that staircase, gradually losing the hitch in his step the cancer gave him, beginning to bound and leap again, the voices rising with him, until I could no longer see him amid the dim shadows of the rafters.

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Episodes is published three-ish times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox.