His shelter name was Tommy, but that didn’t work because my at-the-time boyfriend’s dead dad was named Tommy and it just felt weird. I tried to call him, ugh, Morrissey. Yeah, it was 2001, the year after I did not graduate from high school. I had just moved into my first apartment, a roach and flea infested dump on the furthest edge of town. It was dreadful, but the promise of adulthood and freedom were gloriously at my back. I was an adult! I lived on my own! I have forgotten so many things about my young adulthood I wish I could remember, but I will never forget the day I got him. I was at the San Diego County Animal Shelter and this gray giant, far bigger than any other cat I’d ever seen, was standing up in his cage on his hind legs, front claws drawn all the way out and attached to the metal door, screaming at me for attention. He was terrifying. I came in hoping to get a black cat, but they all seemed disdainfully uninterested in me. I circled the room a few times, waiting to feel a glimmer of connection with any of them and the huge gray cat continued to scream and holler his perfectly snaggle-toothed hollers, flexing his claws. I have always made terrible decisions, so I asked to see him. He was hyper and scary and incredibly sweet. I loved his wildness. I took him home.
That first week, he never once responded to Morrissey and, here in my mid-thirties, I couldn’t be more relieved. Listen, I will love The Smiths forever, but Morrissey is such a dick. I began calling him the nickname my boyfriend and I threw round at the time, Chicken. It stuck.
A few weeks ago, I had to say goodbye to this beloved companion of sixteen years. Sixteen years is a long time. Sixteen years is a really long time when you’re only thirty-five. Those years contain so many lifetimes and he was with me through all of them. I’ve hardly told anyone about Chicken’s passing and as a typical millennial over-sharer, this strikes me funny. I even had a small gathering of friends over to my apartment recently for my birthday and a few of them asked where he was and I had to finally tell them. How weird that I haven’t told all of my loved ones. I did this when my mom had cancer, too, and it was especially weird then because every single day, I’d wake up and immediately barf up some oversharing garbage on Facebook about my crushing depression and the earth shattering dramas I can’t even remember. Some things are too real for social media. Or, maybe it’s that it’s so personal and while it affects me profoundly, it isn’t exactly about me. It’s about someone I love so much more than social media can contain. It’s also really ok to keep some things private.
There was life with Chicken and there is life without him. It feels like two different lives, though his love greatly prepared me for the second one. I joke often about all of the things I won’t miss, lovingly. Today, I washed the last thing he randomly took a shit on. I cried in the laundromat while laughing. This was life with Chicken. I miss everything. He was my best thing. He is still my best thing.
How do I even talk about my love for him? It was unfathomable, star-crossed. Dramatic? Oh, yeah. His love was my healer. He was never one of those cats that liked to be under the covers, but if I was sick or crying, he’d get under the covers with me and let me hold him and he wouldn’t budge. I would look into his big, key-lime eyes and let something go. There was a time, not too long ago, but long enough ago, when I felt distinctly unloved and unlovable. I didn’t yet understand why people, myself included, do the things they do, why my parents did the things that made me feel so uncared for and abandoned. I was so fucking lonely in that place that made up most of my life. I always had people, but I didn’t know how to keep them or nurture relationships in any sort of healthy, lasting way. Losing people was normal for me and through it all, I had Chicken. He was my reason for getting out of bed so many days. Even in the darkness of those times, I felt unmistakably grateful for my responsibility toward him. He loved me so much. He was always ecstatic to see me. He knew the sound of my car and would come bounding toward me from mysterious locations as soon as I got home. He’d give me shade when I went away for a weekend or when I’d come home on drugs. He was always in my business. Even in his last days, if I walked out of a room, he had to follow to see what I was doing.
In our more than sixteen years of being family, he and I made ten homes together, two in San Diego. Eight in Portland. It’s no secret that he was a terror. He talked too much. I learned only a couple of years ago that talkative cats become that way because their people talk to them too much. Guilty as charged, but how could I not? He would respond any time I spoke to him and I did the same. Talking to him was one of my greatest comforts. When it was just us, he was at his best, not to say that he didn’t regularly shred my record sleeves and book covers, window screens and toilet paper rolls. When we lived with others, we were the bad roommates. Me in my alcoholism and depression, Chicken with his long-bad habits and inability to deal with the energy of other crazy animals. He’d, occasionally, rudely go to the bathroom on roommates’ beds and his relentless talking and hollering at all hours of the night didn’t exactly make up for it. I mostly lived with sweet people who put up with him (us), but many people were not charmed by Chicken.
One of my greatest joys was witnessing the bond between him and my partner, Brie. Most of my friends, dates and partners never really liked Chicken or cared to get to know him, but even in those early days of us together, Brie would say things like, “Chicken is so special,” and I knew she meant it. They became best buds. She’s had a slew of cats over her life, grew up with them, but she has said Chicken is the best cat she has ever known. Awhile back, she started calling him her cat, too, and he was. He was, he was.
Chicken chilled out a lot in his final years, but mostly because we stopped living with other people, aside from Brie. Cats seem young for so long and then all of a sudden they’re old and all of the Old Cat Stuff starts happening and it becomes a series of regular low and high devastations. He was crazy about human food, but he had so many dietary issues that I couldn’t give him any without paying for it later when he’d shit on whatever item of clothing I left on the floor. In his last couple of days, he got to eat all of the things he loved to try to steal. Potato chips, popcorn, steak, ribs. Actually, after he had the meat, he didn’t care about anything else. It was such a joy to watch. I think about the sound of him crunching on potato chips all of the time.
The house is unimaginably quiet now. He wasn’t just talkative, he was a clumsy brute. I used to say to him, “Chicken, you’re such a brute!” Running into things, the heavy thuds of him coming down the stairs, his claws always clacking on the floor no matter how recently Brie victoriously trimmed them. I still expect to hear him when I walk through the front door. I keep seeing him out of the corner of my eye.
I am not new to loss. I have always had the love of an animal in my life, but this was one of the big ones. It took me five days to pick up his ashes from the vet and I didn’t tell Brie they were even ready until I brought them home. I think I just didn’t want to say the words, “Chicken’s ashes.” As the vet tech handed them over, I stared at a framed poster of a black lab high-fiving a human so I wouldn’t cry.
Chicken, my anchor, I’m going to love you forever. Thank you for everything. Every, every thing. I’ll miss singing to you. I’ll miss your backtalk. Thank you for helping me become strong enough to live without you. We will be together always.