Love Triangle

Author: Greer Hannan ’09, ’14MNA, ’15M.Div.

2 Illustration by Tallulah Fontaine

I knew the end was near when we were allowed to spoon undisturbed in bed that Wednesday morning. Remus, our 15-year-old cat, had an uncanny ability to hear the shift in cadence of my husband’s breathing as Brian awoke and would spring lightly into our bed even before Brian’s eyes opened. Remus demanded early morning petting, and he considered me, the early riser, a subpar petter; he would wait instead for Brian. Nothing — no breakfasts nor showers nor lunch-packing — could begin until Remus felt his quota had been met.

That morning I found him collapsed under our planter in the hallway, barely registering my presence. He had been in a slow decline due to kidney disease, but during those last few weeks his symptoms had accelerated, and the last two days were worrying. Remus had stopped eating despite his appetite-stimulating medication and was becoming increasingly lethargic. I checked his food and water and realized he hadn’t touched a thing all night. Brian carried him downstairs and tried to tempt Remus with his favorite treats. No interest. Remus even tried to walk away, stumbling and lurching unsteadily. I cried. We knew there was no coming back from this. Remus had lost too much weight, he was too weak, and all interventions had failed.

Still, we lingered with him on the rug. We petted him and talked to him, reminding Remus of all the ways in which he was the most magnificent cat: the supreme softness of his fur; the regal mien of his Maine Coon-mix heritage; his surprising passion for the game of fetch; his persistence, independence and playfulness. Brian played the piano for him, and Remus listened intently as always but did not meow along nor demand petting as the keys fell silent. I brought him a flower — he could never resist a bouquet — and he sniffed at it but declined a nibble, another bad sign. We gave him his favorite toys and told our favorite Remus stories and ceaselessly petted him. The bells tolled at the church behind our house.

“Shouldn’t you be at work already?” Brian gently inquired.

“I just want to be here with you and Remus,” I wailed.

I stayed.

I was a relative newcomer in Remus’ life, but he had been my husband’s constant companion for almost 16 years. I appreciated the underlying currents of anxiety and misanthropy in his personality. He had been fostered as a rescue kitten at my father-in-law’s veterinary practice. Brian’s father and sister had conspired to give him Remus as a Christmas present when they saw how the two had connected. Remus became devoted to Brian but maintained very firm boundaries with all other attention-seekers.

I did not grow up with pets and found these boundaries eminently reasonable. It wasn’t until Brian and I were engaged that I carefully tried to befriend Remus. I became “second feeder,” appreciated for my early-bird rhythms. I even became “second petter,” a begrudgingly accepted alternative when Brian was unavailable. I was an interloper, undeniably, but Remus grew fond of me in his own way.

Also, I was grateful to this deeply loyal cat for being such a good friend to my husband. Brian and I didn’t find each other until our mid-30s, and Remus, not I, had seen him through all the transitions and growth of his early adulthood, including his father’s brain cancer diagnosis and premature death.

Which was why on that overcast Wednesday morning it was so hard to make the call. When Remus started mewling and throwing up on an empty stomach, we knew it would be unkind to delay any longer. Brian cradled Remus and handed me his cellphone. The contact name on the screen gutted me. It said simply, “Dad.” Remus still received his healthcare at the practice where he had been brought for adoption as a forlorn kitten.

The veterinary technician answered my call and told us we could come right away.

Brian swaddled Remus in his favorite blanket, a miniature version of a throw that my mother had crocheted as a present for my soon-to-be fiancé during our first Christmas together. Remus immediately claimed the luxuriously soft blanket for himself, and the mini was Mom’s attempt at a bait-and-switch. I tucked his favorite stuffed mouse under his paw and drove the three of us to the animal hospital, while Brian comforted Remus in the passenger seat. In a haze, I barely registered the details of the waiting room, the exam room, the paperwork Brian signed. The veterinarian listened to our distress and agreed it was time to let Remus go. She explained the euthanasia procedure and gave us all the time we needed to say goodbye. We stayed with Remus to the end, petting him past his last heartbeat, crying and holding each other after Remus slipped away.

We returned to our empty house, every room full of funny memories that brought prickling tears to our eyes. Brian headed to the basement to sort through Remus’ things, organizing food and litter to be donated to the Humane Society. I cleaned the kitchen from top to bottom. It felt good to be busy doing something nice for our home.

Brian walked up as I finished mopping the floor, mumbling that he wished he could tell Remus.

“Tell Remus what?” I asked.

“How great you made the kitchen look. I used to tell him little compliments about you behind your back.”

“To win him over?” I laughed.

“Yes. I told him when we were dating that you were a keeper, that he should treat you well so that you would want to stay.”

The lump rose in my throat again, seeing my husband’s smile broadening, the same smile I’ve seen in photos of his father, the man I never met. I thought of our wedding day, less than two years before, and remembered that Remus’ death had stood as a specter before me even on that sunny morning, as much as the empty space in the pew next to my mother-in-law.

Everyone should think of death on their wedding day, framed as all the joy and loss that spouses will love and honor one another through, all the days of their life. I knew as we said our vows that we would share a rich and long life if we suffered such losses together. Today I recognize that all such losses are linked, pushing us to the very seam of the partition between life and death, the great divide between presence and memory. It is the gift of our vows to be able to face this mystery hand in hand with our feet firmly planted in the now of this present breath.

Greer Hannan works in homeless services in Louisville, Kentucky. Her freelance writing has appeared in America, Commonweal and The Furrow. She is the producer and host of the podcast Femammal, which elevates the voices of women reflecting on what it means to live well in their bodies.