Saying Goodbye to Ernest, the Cat Who Saved My Life
I never wanted to get a cat.
But there we were, my future wife and I at a local animal shelter in SoHo, browsing a room full of caged felines. Jen had grown up with cats, but I’d only ever known dogs. I long lived with the perception that cats were cold, mean, and incapable of the love dogs so eagerly give.
Until I met Ernest, of course.
As we circled the room at Animal Haven, I stopped by one cage that had a beautiful 1-year-old orange tabby, named “Cheshire Cat” by the shelter because of his chubby cheeks. He was shier than the rest of the cats in the room—he seemed nervous and tentative to be touched, but we instantly connected. He slowly and quietly rubbed up against my fingers as I poked them through the metal bars.
After a few minutes of bonding, he turned around, slightly perched his back and sprayed my arm.
While the female cats in the room went into a frenzy, howling and scurrying around their cages at the pungent hormonal marking, the tabby calmly turned back to my hand and continued to nuzzle and purr at me.
“He chose you,” Jen said. And that was that.
It was March 2012 when we made that visit to Animal Haven. Just three months earlier, I’d had a monstrous panic attack that landed me in the emergency room.
I was an overworked cable-news producer who knew he was severely depressed, but was too proud to seek help. I often told Jen—the patient saint that she is—that I couldn’t remember a single day where I felt genuinely happy in the previous four years. Everything just felt dark.
And so years of bottled emotions, repressed anxieties, and unchecked neuroses erupted with terrifying force on a Saturday night while sitting in the living room of our friends’ house.
From then on, I was completely crippled by the anxiety of facing another panic attack. I was reduced to the infantility of lying on my parents’ couch for a week, tossing and turning, sometimes hallucinating, often crying for no reason other than to drown out the fear that I was irreversibly losing my mind. Or that one day I might kill myself.
I barely ate because meals would be randomly interrupted by the dizzying sensation of an impending panic. My sister took me to see The Muppets—light fare—and I shifted in my chair the entire time, thinking about my panic-filled future, quietly fighting the urge to bolt for the exit and run all the way home to my apartment rather than sit in a dark theater with my thoughts.
Even mundane routines became terrifying: I could no longer ride escalators without closing my eyes, tightly gripping the handrail, and feeling the woosh of panic take hold. I was convinced that one day I’d end up committing suicide.
I ultimately sought help, began seeing a psychiatrist, and was diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorder. She gave me medication and said it would take time to start feeling normal again, but that drugs are by no means a cure-all. You must sort through the mess of your own anxieties, she said, like organizing a cluttered office with endless stacks of paper tossed around and left unfiled for decades.
I began to take control of my life. I found a new job; had heart-to-heart conversations with loved ones and reconnected with old friends; and vowed to treat Andrew Kirell with some respect and work on my music. But nothing could truly comfort me—Jen noticed as much, so she suggested we get a cat. I was willing to try anything.
And so immediately after “Cheshire Cat” sprayed me in March 2012, we signed the paperwork to take him home at the beginning of April, after he’d been neutered. The reason he was so skittish and anxious, the shelter said, was because his previous owners had beaten him for spraying their walls. (Neutering prevents spraying.) A heroic friend of the owners stole him in the middle of the day and brought him to a shelter.
We named him Ernest, because Ernest Hemingway collected six-toed cats just like this one.
When we brought him to our apartment, I was unsure how to handle the situation. I worried he’d be a nuisance; that our quiet bonding at the shelter was just his ruse to get out of a cage; that he would just be another mouth to feed while I can barely take care of myself.
But it was the exact opposite. After popping out of the box on our living-room floor, he hid in our bathtub for a few minutes before emerging. Almost instantly, the two of us were lying on the bed together like two lazy cats.
A photograph of me petting him as he settled in his little blue cat bed, flashing the widest smile I’d shown in years, became symbolic of the turning point in my mental health.
Ernest and I became inseparable. He’d lie on my chest as I slept, on my lap as I typed on my laptop. When I came down with food poisoning, he lay across my lap in bed for a full 10 hours.
Every morning he’d meow at me to get me to come to the bedroom to pet him—he’d reach out a paw and pull my face down so he could rub his head against mine. I didn’t go a single morning without happily participating in his routine. When we’d come home to the apartment, you could hear him yelp with joy through the door. And after entering his abode, he’d lead us to higher ground where he could greet us with nuzzling, face-to-face.
When I’d leave the apartment for five minutes to go down to the bodega for snacks, he’d sit by the door and whine until I returned. He got so lonely when we’d leave the house that we decided in July 2012 to adopt a frisky little calico kitten—named Rosie—to keep him company. After a few weeks of nerve-wracking tension, they became loving companions. Some of my happiest moments were immortalized in photographs of me holding both of them at once, including on our wedding day (as seen in the main image at top).
At night, Ernest would hop in bed with us and spend a good 10 minutes purring loudly in our faces, rubbing his cheeks against ours, kneading the bed, before curling up in a ball between our heads. I would sulk on nights that he didn’t do it—usually because he was scared of a random noise, like a passing car or the air conditioner, and would take a few days to trust the bed again.
We called him “the best cat that ever lived” because he was the greatest consolation either of us had ever experienced, but also because he felt like a super-cat, one that defied all the stereotypes.
I saw in him personality traits that I saw in myself: deeply anxious but gentle at heart; aloof at first, but warm and welcoming once you meet our standards; and in deep need of unconditional empathy. Sure, skeptics would say he was “just a cat,” but I felt as though he and I quietly understood each other to be anxious wrecks who needed and loved each other.
When my 23-year-old cousin Jenny was killed several years ago, Ernest seemed to know that I’d sunk into a worsened state of depression, smothering me with even more affection than before.
Whenever I had a terrible day at work, I knew he’d be there to offer himself up for some joy. I could trust that he would find the tight spot between us on the couch while we watched TV, or that he’d comfort me to sleep that night. I called him “the best friend I’ve ever had.”
He was my therapy cat.
On Sunday night, upon returning from a weekend of poolside drinking and sunbathing, I found Ernest lying on his side, eyes and mouth open, cold as ice. I knew he was gone the moment he didn’t get up to come greet me.
He was just 5 years old.
Overcome with panic and devastation, I hyperventilated and sobbed uncontrollably. I lay down next to him, petting his stiffened body, telling him I’m sorry—sorry for any pain he might have suffered; sorry for having left him alone that weekend; and sorry for having not looked up at his window perch after we left the apartment, a day earlier, to say another goodbye.
My wife called a late-night veterinarian for examination and rubbed my back, telling me not to blame myself. And after my snot-filled tantrum ended, she wept into my chest, asking, “What do we do now?”
“Nothing,” I said.
We wrapped him in his bed and carried him two blocks south to the vet’s office. The doctor told us that there’s no way to truly know what happened, but that the most common cause of sudden death for otherwise healthy young male cats is cardiomyopathy, a congenital disease in the heart.
Or, as Jen tried to rationalize: “He just loved too hard.”
In the time we spent alone with his body before vet techs took it away, we sang to him, pet and kissed him, thanked him, and looked at pictures of him and recalled their associated stories. Being grateful to have experienced the Greatest Cat Who Ever Lived would be the only way to fight images of his lifeless corpse from haunting our minds.
It was after midnight when we finally walked over to our favorite watering hole, The Brooklyn Inn, and practically collapsed into our barstools. I offhandedly mentioned to the bartender that I’d need a stiff drink because we’d just come home to find our young cat dead.
He let out a deep sigh and offered sincere condolences.
“I know exactly how you feel,” he said. “My cat basically saved my life.”