How We Really Live

By Marc Dion

March 5, 2012 5 min read

In a time when the big questions threaten to swamp our leaky little lives, when toothed rocks lie off every shore, when metaphor is cheap, it is as well to consider the death of Smokey, the cat who belonged to my wife and I.

He lived with my wife for 17 years and with us as a couple for the last seven.

She got him at a shelter, so tiny he could fit in her small hand. Upon arriving home, he first defecated on her kitchen floor and then bit her thumb.

He grew to weigh 30 pounds, the size of a cocker spaniel. He was named for his gray fur, which was the color of cigar smoke. He was double-clawed, and as I often told my wife, Smokey was a miserable failure as a house cat.

He beat up our smaller, sweeter cat and stole his food. He leapt onto the coffee table when we had guests and went nose down in the onion dip.

"How cute!" the guests said, reaching to push him aside. He bit them for that, usually on the thumb.

He used his litter box maybe 90 percent of the time, and when he did use it, he did not bury his leavings, as cats do. He left that job for us. He did not clean himself. His fur was knotted and matted. We took him to groomers, and he bit them, most often on the thumb. I have seen it take two assistants and a veterinarian to clip his claws.

After a routine examination, one such veterinarian emerged from the backroom, carrying an infuriated Smokey, whose double claws still reached for the vet's eyes. Covered in urine, bitten on the thumb and scratched bloody along the arms, the vet handed my wife back her cat.

"Sorry," my wife said as she clutched a yowling Smokey to her bosom.

On a day off during the Christmas season, I made a cup of tea and took three Christmas cookies from a tin box. They were shaped like wreaths, encrusted with the happiness of red and green sugar sprinkles. I lay down on the bed, put my tea cup on the night stand, placed the three cookies on my chest and began to read a book, something about the Crusades, I think.

As I made my way toward Jerusalem, Smokey, who had joined me on the bed, threw a left paw jab, following it with a haymaker right. The cookies flew off my chest, and he seized one between his paws and began to eat it.

I knew my wife would not want him eating sugar sprinkles, so I took the cookie from him. He seized the second cookie.

For 15 minutes the big gray cat and I fought all over the bed until I had secured all three cookies and a bite mark on my thumb.

He got old. His back humped. His lion's head nosed toward the ground.

One night, he began to cry — not his usual yowl/meow of challenge, but a cry like a baby's cry.

We took him to the vet. He did not fight. They medicated him and sent him back home.

He cried all that night, more loudly if we went to bed and left him. We moved his bed into the living room, and my wife slept on the love seat while I slept on the couch. We left the lights on all night.

And the next day, a Saturday, my wife took Smokey for his last doctor's appointment.

While she called the vet and got dressed, the big cat lay quietly on the living room floor.

I was recovering from knee surgery and could not walk, but I heaved myself down off the couch and, using my arms, dragged myself to where he lay.

When I arrived next to him, he cuddled into my side and cried, looking for comfort I could not give.

I petted him then and spoke to him in French, as I often did. I said "la, la, la," which is a French mother's "there, there, there," and I said "courage," which is the same word in English and in French.

"Goodnight, old cat friend," I said in English as my wife took him away. It was what I said to him every night before going to bed.

It is how we live. Small comforts. Small afflictions

To find out more about Marc Munroe Dion and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit

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