Love & Other
Terminal Diseases


(This story was published in the Winter 2003 issue of Folio magazine, a literary journal of American University, and is reprinted with permission.)

I spy on my cats sometimes. To make sure that they eat.

There is a large rectangular hole between my dining room and kitchen, where the cats have their dishes. It is behind this opening that I position myself, peering at the kitchen floor past the iron uprights of the Nordic ski-exerciser that I do not use, to get the best glimpse I can of my two cats' heads as they mince their way into their respective dishes of Friskies Seniors salmon or beef entree. I feel strange, even a bit embarrassed, to be doing this, using what some interior designer regarded as a step-saving device or a pleasing architectural detail in order to perform this clandestine operation. Once I caught myself lost in the fantasy of being a CIA operative in a Vienna hotel lobby, ready to intercept a secret microchip of coded information. Does all spying breed such fantasies?

What would happen if one of the cats looked up suddenly, fixing me with a steely gaze? Do I actually believe they might "cop to my surveillance", might report me somewhere? I imagine myself quietly phoning my control and whispering: "Help! I've been made! I'll need to find another mode of eavesdropping!"

In any event, they do need to eat, don't they?

My cats are named Shiloh and Harriet. They are sisters, and close to identical. Both are black with white markings. Shiloh's white patches are sleek and pointed, framing her nose in a slender isosceles triangle. Harriet only has white feet.

They are certainly not identical in temperament. Shiloh loves mice. Harriet loves playing with rubber bands. Mice are a rarity at the apartment where Miriam and I used to live together, but whenever they invade the apartment Shiloh will pounce. She used to bring the mouse to Miriam when she was flossing or drying off after her bath. Frankly, Miriam would be traumatized. The mouse would still be alive and trembling, and she had to watch, petrified, while Shiloh batted it around like Muhammad Ali playing with some second-rate gym fighter.

Harriet's amusements were more predictable, since the Sunday subscription to the New York Times was delivered, and still is, each week, wrapped with a fat rubber band. Harriet leaps into the hallway the moment the door is opened and attacks the band with tooth and claw. On the few occasions when she does not succeed in snapping it, Miriam (and now me) will eventually cut it with a scissors. If this happens, Harriet sulks for hours.

The cats ate better when Miriam was around. They were her cats, after all. I inherited them only when she died suddenly.

I think of my life as divided into Before Miriam and After Miriam. The "Before" period of my life – which is most of it – was quiet and uneventful.

I am not a person of popular good looks. I am five feet six inches tall and very plain. Total baldness is my only distinguishing characteristic. I have hair in other places, as Miriam was delighted to discover a few weeks after we met.

We met five years ago through a mid-town dating service. It was early August. In fact, I remember the date precisely for later that evening I jotted it on a slip of yellow paper which I keep in my wallet: "August 5, 1992. I am in love."

For me it was love at first sight. To be sure, I was a Johnny-come-lately in the world of relationships. I had not been lucky in love during the first 50 years of my life. I therefore did not have address books crammed with the phone numbers of female companions, against which to compare Miriam. But I considered her perfect. And I still do.

She was barely five feet tall. Sunbeams lived in her smile, and her smile was there each time she saw me. I loved her bobbed brown hair, her will o' the wisp figure, and her far-sighted blue eyes, whose vision was corrected by spectacles in a surprising variety of frames. She had a frame, it seemed, for each day of the week and every mood.

What impressed me most was that Miriam was a reader. She worked as a librarian in the Children's Books division of the New York public Library, and her job – over the 25-year period before her retirement – had done nothing to deflect her from the solace of books after work hours. I was charmed to learn at our first meeting that her childhood – which had a few dark turns and hidden passages – had been sustained for her by retreating to a corner and reading. Ah, for how many of us has that been true!

She had a verve that I lacked and admired, a bouncy aptitude for enjoyment of the movies and musical events and quiet dinners with friends that would come to provide our social life.

Unlike me, Miriam had once been married. For ten years she was bound to a brilliant psychotic who had kept her in a state of nervous terror through his loud-voiced threats of bodily harm. She was, understandably, a bit wary.

But Miriam seemed to be as charmed by me as I was by her. She often remarked positively on the great catholicity of my interests. Which is certainly true. I devour the New York Times thoroughly, as well as National Geographic and the membership magazine of the Smithsonian. I watch Masterpiece Theater on PBS, and Bill Moyers and Charlie Rose. I am shy, but I can talk about black holes and fractals and the animals that live in the trees at the top of the rain forest, with the right person. Miriam was the right person.

She was not perturbed that I long ago gave up my dream of being a poet, and she loved that I continued to take pleasure in the latest fiction, and that I had read almost as many of the nineteenth century authors as she had.

She said often that what mattered most was that I was kind. It is a nice thing, to be considered kind. In the almost four years that we lived together I never had the occasion to raise my voice.

Since her apartment was larger and better located than mine, I moved in only a few months after we met. She retired a year later. And I followed suit six months after that, following 30 years of minor bureaucratic service to the City.

We both received decent retirement packages, and happily ruminated over our savings plans and our medical coverage and our prudent insurance policies. Without being financial experts we had managed to provide ourselves, separately and together, with a secure old age. We planned future vacations in Europe and the Far East, Newfoundland, Ecuador. But we decided to marry first and take trips later, so three years into our deepening relationship we at last tied the knot.

Shortly after we were married (actually, it had begun before) I began to assume certain household duties. I enjoyed doing my part. Thus it was that I began to clean and empty the cats' litter box. I also gave them their medicines and occasionally groomed them. I helped catch them whenever they had to be caged for their twice-yearly trip to the vet. But I never fed them, until after Miriam died.

"We were blindsided," said her GP, Dr. Fitzhugh.

"It came out of the blue and bit us on the arse," said one of the many medical specialists who'd been called in to consult.

A "transmissible spongiform encephalopathy" is how another specialist put it. Could be one, could be another. Creutzfeldt-Jacob, perhaps, or even mad cow disease. Etiology less than certain. A hundred-to-one-shot. Invading prions, most likely. Renegade proteins that burrow holes in the brain, reducing it to jelly. Beyond that, little is known. Even prions are only a theory.

Miriam had been the Paul Revere of our medical destinies, riding her horse and swinging her lantern, calling out: "The maladies are coming! The maladies are coming! Prepare yourselves!" She maintained weekly surveillance over the Tuesday Times, which featured health columns and medical reports. She kept files of clippings, on diseases ordinary and obscure, dramatic or mundane. She had begun hormone therapy three years before its efficacy as a preventive for osteoporosis became widespread, but dropped it a year before its associations with cancer was clinically confirmed. That’s how attentive she was to the medical signposts and portents! And now this. Like being hit by an unseen vehicle the moment your foot steps off the curb.

The funeral was small and quick: a few words by a Conservative rabbi that Miriam had once mentioned to me (I am not Jewish), the condolences of five of her family (I have no family of my own), plus consoling handclasps from two of my former working buddies. Then to the cemetery. Then home, to feed the cats.

Shiloh was the one who was affected most. Shiloh had always required encouragement. Whether from coyness or lack of interest, she would, whenever dinner was served, remain wherever she had got to, in the closet, on the ironing board in the den, perhaps curled up in her basket next to the window that looked out on the tennis courts. Miriam would come to her, calling her name softly, pick her up in her arms and carry her to the food. She would set her down gently, stroke her behind the ears and ask her to eat. She would stay, ready to catch either of them if they started to walk away, coaxing them to continue until she was sure they’d had enough.

I fetch Shiloh just as she did, but I don't remain there because they simply won't eat when I'm around. That's why I retreat to my observation post to check out how much they eat. And if they don't stay – but usually it's Shiloh that leaves – I fetch them again and return them to their food.

Otherwise I sit in my armchair and read. I still read the Times and the National Geographic, but I don't have anyone to talk to now. Sometimes I talk to the cats--about dolphins, or Diana Riggs' introductions to Mystery, or the shortfall of our country's contribution to the United Nations – but there is a limit, I think, to how much they understand. They seem sympathetic, but they don't hold up their end of the conversation.

Sometimes I stare at the Nordic ski implement, which Miriam used faithfully every morning. I never learned to use it. I know that Miriam would prefer that I exercise. ("We must keep you healthy!" she would say brightly to me, at least once a week.) But I don't. I prepare simple meals for myself, I feed the cats, and administer their medicine. Harriet has only one kidney, so it is important that she get her medicine every day.