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cats and coronavirus personal essay

Of Cats and Coronavirus

Even in chaos, there is beauty.

Pictures: James Fitzgerald

The coronavirus outbreak has become a pandemic overnight with entire countries more or less shutting down — creating curfews, closing borders, suspending some services. Major sports leagues across the globe have ceased operations suspending or outright canceling seasons and tournaments. No Final Four, no Premier League Soccer, no spring training baseball in Florida. People are getting sick with some recovering, but with many untimely deaths. While the chaos of the world and the past few years finds itself at a fever pitch, it only heightens and exasperates our daily experiences, making the quiet moments sacrosanct, and the cacophony all the more calamitous.

All of the nation’s extremely busy lives are coming to a screeching halt. For us, this is what it looks like: two full-time professional jobs now being performed remotely, a toddler who’s nearly two, another baby due in the summertime, and a new house we’re set to close on at the end of March. As with many families worldwide, without the inherent danger of the coronavirus, our lives are already legitimately chaotic.

Now, we worry about toilet paper supply as I chase our son around the house and wonder if every sniffle and sneeze is the plague at our door. We also have pets to contend with, but they’re cats. And, to be clear, I’m fine with cats, even though, scientifically speaking and from first-hand experience I know for an undisputed fact that cats are assholes.

One is adopted and one I’ve come to accept as my own. The adopted, Thomas or Tommy or TomTom, is a rescue from the Humane Society, having been discovered as a tiny kitten under the stairs of a local church. He was about six months when he made his way to the first apartment my then-girlfriend, now wife, and I shared on New York Ave NW a few blocks north of Chinatown. He meowed a lot in the early stages, but grew to trust quickly. He’s been with us for nearly four years now. He’s pretty dope when he wants to be but can often be a jerk. He’s the paradigm of a sophomore year college boyfriend and a pretty typical cat.

Then, there’s Sofia: a silky smoke-gray-and-white barnyard tabby from Kentucky. A decade prior, my wife’s boss found a pregnant cat in her barn and easily persuaded her fellow Legal Aid attorneys to adopt the kittens. She was brought home as a teacup kitten, raised by a black lab, who passed away in the middle of the night after a difficult battle with cancer. Sofia was beautiful, abrasive, often gentle, even more so erratic.

Now, we worry about toilet paper supply as I chase our son around the house and wonder if every sniffle and sneeze is the plague at our door.

Generally, as I’ve found most felines to be, Sofia was a bit of an acquired taste. We were at odds with one another from day one. I would attempt to get her off the table, she’d attempt to remove my hand from my arm with her claws. I attempted to win her over with songs I made up about her with mixed results, but if I forgot to clear her litter box, she would remind me with a little pee in the tub, or on the carpet, or even the couch. At one point, we went through three couches in two and a half years. She was old and particular about her routine, to say the least, but the doctors assured us, medically, she was fine. After our son was born, we considered looking into a pet behavioral specialist because Sofia seemed stressed by the new addition to our family. However, as I set specific reminders to do better about litter, the issues resolved themselves. Though I would often joke with my wife about letting the cats run off one day from home when they were at the pinnacle of annoyance, fighting with one another or attacking our ankles, I honestly had grown fond of them. Over the years that fondness had developed into true love.

And, then, a few days into our coronavirus quarantine, a doctor told me Sofia was dying.

She wasn’t dying in that metaphoric sense that we’re all dying from the moment we’re born until we reach our graves. She was dying in a much more immediate, tangible manner and the doctors couldn’t tell me why. She was in pain, but not agony – not yet, anyway. Jaundice had given her deep yellowish skin beneath her smoky fur that my wife had identified a week prior. Sofia had a complete lack of appetite as well as an incessant need for comfort by human touch in a way she’d never displayed previously. The veterinarian was not certain of the specific ailment, but it was a very bad case of jaundice with a terrible prognosis. Even if we fought it immediately and hard, given her age and necessary treatments, her quality of life was going to be horrific. The treatments and drug doses necessary to keep her alive would be traumatic in and of themselves. We had a very difficult choice to make in a very short amount of time. I called my wife, she balled over the phone, and asked me to bring Sofia home for one last night. The cat slept on her in the evening for a bit, but was determined to uncomfortably rest on my wife’s pregnant bump. At some point in the middle of the night, Sofia curled up against my legs and fell asleep purring.

The next morning, my wife, our son, and Sofia cuddled in bed for an episode of Sesame Street. Then, I packed her in the carrier and we said our goodbyes. Our son knew something was different and gave “SoSo,” as he calls her, a long goodbye wave. We’d likely have to explain in the future what happened. I drove in chilly rain to our vet with Sofia occasionally uncharacteristically howling. She didn’t love carriers, but she rarely cried out like this. Did she know what was happening? Was she in pain? Was she angry with me? Or sad? Or was I just losing my mind thinking a cat was capable of any type of thoughts of that magnitude? Needlessly to say, the drive felt like an hour when it was less than fifteen minutes.

I’d promised my wife when the time came, I’d be there. With her being pregnant and coronavirus concerns, I implored her to let me do this for her and requested that she remain home. So, instead, I sat in with the doctor and her assistant. She explained to me the procedure and attempted to prepare me for the outcome.

“You can stand there, and pat her head if you’d like,” she informed me in a velvet soft whisper of a voice. I patted Sofia’s head, and stroked her gently. I told her she was a good girl. I told her that her mother loved her very much. We all loved her very much. Then, seconds later, she was gone. The doctor told me how sorry she was, sniffled some herself, and gave me a very quick and gentle hug. Then, she and her assistant disappeared with Sofia, her body wrapped in a warm fleece blanket covered in tiny crimson hearts. I stood for a moment longer in the room, alone with the humming white noise of a computer’s fan and an empty black carrier with a soft, eggshell-colored pad covered in her smoky fur, and, for the first time in a long time, I wept.

I have lost people before, but I don’t know that I’ve really grieved, and this surreal moment set in the shadow of a pandemic helped me to realize that.

In the Army, I watched men pass before my eyes in a combat zone. At 27, I lost one of my best friends from high school in a car accident. Another drank himself to death and we didn’t hear about it for days. My father died in August 2012 when I was 32 and working on the Obama re-election campaign. I took a week off to support my family and deliver the eulogy, then I got back to work to help win the election. At 38, I gave the benediction for a close friend in DC who was a healthy former college athlete, almost a decade my junior, but who was taken too soon by cancer. Sofia’s death felt oddly different.

It felt like I had failed Sofia in a way, as though I could have done more, though the doctors said otherwise. Maybe I was reliving the pain and guilt of prior losses or finally accepting death in a way I never had previously. Losing Sofia just felt different. The other losses were all traumatic and personal, but this was a piece of me dying out, too. A part of my light — a cat that slept on top of me every chance she got, hit me with her head like a ram demanding to be petted, knew when I was sick and paid me more attention to ensure my spirits remained high — was now gone. It reminds you of all that you lost all at once, in a single breath, and taking that breath, even in a quiet moment alone in a quiet room, hurts.

Losing Sofia is heartbreaking, but it reminds me that even in this chaos there are beautiful things. I returned from war and attended grad school. I met a wonderful woman and we started a growing family. We have a talented little boy becoming more talkative by the second, and we have a former stray cat that we would have never met had a barnyard cat from Kentucky not needed a friend.

The coronavirus is a new challenge this country has to face, but we’ve dealt with many others in the past. Some easier, some more difficult, each a little different from its predecessor. I’m hopeful that with each of these losses and hardships we suffer, we will endure, we will continue to grow, we will find compassion for one another, and we will share a few tears and laughs when we can. And, occasionally, it’s okay to note that cats – like many of us in the world – are, indeed, assholes deserving of love.

Bishop Garrison


Bishop Garrison (@BishopGarrison) is a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council. He graduated from West Point in 2002 and served two deployments in Iraq in the Army. He is also 2010 graduate of William and Mary Law School. He served in various national security positions in the Obama Administration and served as Deputy Foreign Policy Adviser for the 2016 Clinton campaign.


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