It’s nearly impossible for me to look at the above photo and not tear up. It was taken on Thanksgiving, and features two dudes I love dearly — my dad and our family cat, Max.
I’ve seen the two of them embracing like that countless times over the years. These days, however, the circumstances are unique. Each is ailing, but at different points in their respective journeys.
After a year-long struggle with bone marrow cancer, my father has undergone a stem cell transplant. While he’s still confined to the house because of his compromised system, it appears he’s on the road to recovery. We’re all extremely grateful for that, especially as we celebrated his 65th birthday yesterday.
For Max, sadly, the outlook isn’t as good.
Two weeks ago, Max seemed completely healthy and chipper, just as he’s been since he came into our lives along with his brother Marty back in the fall of 2001.
But about 10 days ago we noticed the little guy was drooling. That’s obviously unusual for a kitty, and a trip to the vet revealed a growth in his mouth. That growth, we’ve now learned, is cancerous. There’s little we can do for him at this point besides manage the symptoms and love him up during the time he has left.
Our little buddy has already lost weight and doesn’t eat as eagerly as he used to. When I was home over Thanksgiving and again last night, Max climbed onto my lap just like always, but he can no longer get comfortable remaining in one place for an extended period of time. His meows sound the same, but the look in his eyes is pained. He smells different. I wonder if he understands that when we inject painkilling medicine in his mouth, we do so to help him, not traumatize.
Following those shots, Max has gotten into the habit of scurrying down into the basement to be by himself. It’s sad to see a cat I’ll remember as especially social behaving in such a way. Marty, for his part, has a bewildered, wide-eyed look on his face a lot of the time that indicates he knows something’s not right.
Everyone would clearly like for things to just be normal. I’m sure Max wants nothing more than to sit on somebody’s lap and be gently petted while the seven of us hang out in the living room. But, as they say, Father Time is undefeated, and this process is the hardest part of the implicit agreement you make whenever you bring a pet into your life.
It goes without saying that it’s never easy to lose a pal like Max. Pets absolutely become part of one’s family, especially when they’re as lovable as our kitties. But compounding the sadness in this case is the fact that my dad absolutely adores Max and Marty — his “therapy cats,” as he calls them — and having to say a slow goodbye to one of them just weeks after returning home following months spent in the hospital, especially because one of them has cancer, is a particularly cruel twist of fate.
Thank goodness my dad is such a resilient guy, as he’s proven over and over again this year.
Though Max and Marty were part of the same litter, things like Max’s more social, better-behaved personality and proclivity for hunting (Marty wants nothing to do with little critters) have always suggested that in spirit, he’s the older brother. Marty has been much larger in size than Max for years, but Marty was actually the runt of the litter and had to be fed with a bottle when we first brought the two of them into the Rupar home. Max could’ve been a jerk and boxed his brother out from the food and water we put in their shared dish back then. From day one, though, the two of them happily shared just about everything, and thanks to Max, we never once had to feed Marty with a bottle once he entered our home. (These days Marty will try to eat just about anything that appears on the table — Max has NEVER been a stinker like that — but that’s a story for another time.)
A day or two after we adopted them, we returned from a family dinner at Applebee’s to find Max and Marty adorably perched next to each other side-to-side on top of a couch. In that moment any concerns we had about the two of them getting along went away. It set the tone for the next 14 years. They’ve always been a team.
Max and Marty have been my buddies as I graduated from high school, left home for college, came back to live with my parents and brothers for a couple summers, went up to the family cabin each year, moved to DC for a bit, came back to Minneapolis, flamed out of grad school, became a full-time journalist, and entered my 30s. They were one of the few constants through so much change, always waiting at home with affectionate meows that seemed to say “We missed you!” and wanting little more than some attention and to be petted when they hopped on your lap.
Given all my family has been through in the last year, it would’ve been so nice to load up the car next summer and head up to Round Lake with the whole crew — my parents, brothers, Max, Marty, and me — all finally sporting clean bills of health. It doesn’t look like we’ll ever have that chance, but Max will be there with us in spirit, chasing mice on the porch and using copious meows to have input in our family card games, just like always.
Thank you, Max, for bringing so much love and happiness into our lives for the 14 years you’ve been around. Thank you for being one of the best examples I’ve had of what it means to be a good brother. We’ve all been enriched by your presence in our family. I wish I could tell you this in the kitty language of meows and licks, though I have a feeling you probably understand more of what us human Rupars say than we might imagine.
All of us, including Marty, will miss you dearly. In a crazy world and through many tumultuous times, the simple affection you’ve shown all of us continues to serve an important reminder that life doesn’t have to be as complicated as we often make it out to be. When you boil it down, it’s about love, compassion, generosity, and simple pleasures like just hanging out and spending quality time with loved ones.
I wish we didn’t have to say goodbye, especially at this time. But our days are all numbered and you’ve had the sort of run most kitties would give their right paw for.
So here’s to you, my good friend. I’ll never forget you. You’ll always be a part of my family and you’ll always be my little buddy.