If Rex had been a person, he would have been a lot like Charlie Sheen. He thought way too highly of himself. He had tiger blood. Rex was prone to lashing out and biting the heels of anyone who crossed his path and then bolting away to hide under a bed, cleverly avoiding any possible consequences.
I’m not sure that either of my parents ever liked him very much, for understandable reasons. He was a wildfire, burning strong and impossible to control. My brother was terrified of him. And Rex, well, Rex seemed to consistently like only one person in the world.
From the day my dad brought Rex home, I loved everything about him. I had begged my parents for a cat for as long as I could talk, and in my eyes, this one was perfect.
I loved that his hair was the color of the darkest part of night and that people always told me, with a sort of haughty arrogance, “You know, black cats are unlucky.” I loved the way Rex jumped up and put his two front paws on my chest, like a child, demanding to be held. I loved his big yellow eyes and the way he seemed to see right through things. I loved the way he paraded around the house like a tiny king, with a tremendously inflated sense of self-importance.
I was 4 years old when my dad brought that cat through the door, and to this day I’ve never gotten a better birthday present.
I named him Tyrannosaurus Rex, because I was a child with a large vocabulary and an over-active imagination, and because Rex pounced on everything that moved with aggression that seemed to burst forth like fireworks from his little body. My dad got Rex from a coworker whose housecat had kittens. He chose Rex, funnily enough, because he seemed the friendliest.
With my heightened vocabulary came the tendency to hide away in my room and read all day, every day. I had friends, sure, plenty of them, but I was enchanted by the idea of independence and being alone. I didn’t care much for other people, and Rex was the perfect friend, because he sure didn’t care much for people either.
As I grew up and made my way through middle school and high school, Rex remained my constant. He was my fixed point in a changing age. Every day when I got home from school, he followed me into my room, I shut the door, and we stayed there, both bitter about life for no reason in particular. Together.
If you’re looking for a companion for your teenage angst, I highly recommend a cat. They seem to be filled with their own special, eternal brand of malaise.
That was my life for a while. Get home, head to my room, and hang out with Rex. And it was good. But of course things changed, just as they always seem to when you’re most comfortable. In the summer before my first year of college, Rex had a stroke.
I came home late one evening to find him pacing the house in odd, wide circles. I picked him up and instead of clutching close to me like he usually did, he felt limp and heavy. His eyes were vacant. I knew that something was wrong.
My parents were both out. I called my dad and begged him to come home, but he said he was sure Rex was fine and I was overreacting. In hindsight, I don’t blame him at all for thinking that. I’m a dramatic person; I know that. But at the time I was scared and angry and I yelled at him through the phone.
I had always turned to my dad to fix my problems. We’re the same in so many ways. We have nearly identical interests, due in part to the fact that I’m pretty sure Dad purposefully raised me to love things like “The Simpsons” and “Seinfeld.” We both read a lot of Stephen King and love fantasy and time travel. We have the same sarcastic sense of humor, and we both secretly revel in perpetually being a little dark and angry.
My mom is soft and kind and warm. She’s an unfailing optimist and she sees sunshine in everyone she meets. So, being the person that I am, I never felt like we had much in common. I’m learning now that we’re alike in a lot of ways, so many more than I thought, but I hadn’t realized that yet, so it felt especially meaningful that when I called her about Rex, she rushed home and drove me half an hour to an emergency vet without question. She never doubted my judgment. She never questioned me. I’m still grateful.
Rex made it through the night, but the next day he was bad again. Worse than he’d been before. That morning, he had to be “put to sleep.” That’s a comfortable way of saying that Rex died. I think the fluffy phrasing is supposed to make things easier. Like, oh, sleep is nice. It’s just sleep! Maybe that kind of thinking eases the process for some people. I sincerely hope that it does. But it doesn’t for me, because it’s not sleep. It’s death. And it doesn’t seem fair to equate those things.
I wasn’t with Rex when he died. I went to work, like it was any other day. I thought that if I went through the mundane motions, things would go back to normal. They didn’t. I did sit with Rex for a while before I left. I talked to him. I told him that it was ok to go, that I wouldn’t be angry. Then I got in my car and drove away.
I will always regret not going to the vet that day. My mom was the last person to hold Rex. That’s not how it should have been. It wasn’t fair to her, and it certainly wasn’t fair to Rex. I hope he didn’t realize that I wasn’t there for him. I hope he never felt abandoned.
Rex was completely healthy until the day that he died, and I’m thankful for that. He didn’t have to suffer or slowly wither away. He was 15, pretty old for a cat. I feel blessed to have gotten as much time with him as I did.
I dealt with Rex’s death the same way I’ve always dealt with anything: I hid away in my room and pretended that everything was fine. I didn’t let myself think about the fact that there was a small Rex-shaped indentation on my bed. I went out with friends and insisted nothing was wrong. As time passed, I started to feel less and less like I was lying to myself.
Maybe this sounds crazy. Maybe I sound like I was too attached to an animal. Maybe I was too attached to an animal, but I also think that it’s possible that my story isn’t unique. Maybe we’re all too attached to our animals.
And I truly think we should all stop feeling like we need to make excuses for our grief. We should stop saying things like, “I know he was just a cat,” or, “Yes, she’s only a dog…” Because it’s not true. It’s never true. Pets are so much more than that. They’re wonderful, shining gifts in life and we shouldn’t devalue them by hiding our grief. We should feel free to miss them exactly as much as they deserve.
When our pets die, a part of us dies with them and moving on isn’t as easy as we’d like it to be. It’s ok to admit that.
Don’t ever feel guilty for feeling. Don’t feel bad for loving something, whether it’s a pet, or a friend, or even an old, cheesy sci-fi show. Don’t let anyone tell you that your love is silly or misplaced.
Sorry. I know I’m getting preachy. That tends to happen. But I really want to make this point. I once wrote an article about not feeling bad about your passions, even if other people don’t understand them. That’s how I feel about this, too.
If you loved your cat with a ridiculous, unconditional, intense love, be proud. Shout it to the whole world. Write a long blog post about it. Hang pictures of the cat on your walls. Do whatever you need to do.
I got a new cat last Christmas. I told my parents that I’d had a cat for as long as I could remember, and I just didn’t feel like myself without one.
I called this one Merlin, in honor of one of those cheesy sci-fi shows that I love with no shame. Merlin is slight and adventurous, with a permanent black-and-white fur tuxedo. Merlin is everything Rex wasn’t. He’s social and bright and he loves everyone he meets. He is so, so different.
But it’s good, because I’m different now too, and I love slowly getting to know Merlin and falling in love with his quirks and eccentricities, just like I did with Rex.
Merlin isn’t a replacement. He’s something new. A new companion. A new friend.
But I’ll never forget my Rex, that strange, sweet, unpredictable ball of black fur and cynical rage, who taught me so much about life, and was my very best friend.